Warner Bros. Discovery boss David Zaslav has wasted little time in implementing his new-look international executive team and shuttering CNN+, but with $3bn in savings to find, there are numerous moves left to make.
Cost-cutting will be uppermost in the minds of the newly-installed senior C-suiters, but Discovery’s factual entertainment roots and Warner Media’s more scripted slant mean the companies shared little creative overlap before the $43bn merger.
That means some serious back office reorganisation and property sales to achieve the $3bn target (within two years), but there are also numerous questions around existing assets that have, to some degree, gone under the radar to date.
While the Warner Bros. Discovery merger was pitched as a meeting of minds (and text messages) between Zaslav and AT&T’s John Stankey, it was Discovery shareholder Liberty Global – and more precisely, support from its boss John Malone – that helped smooth the pathway for the deal to come to its conclusion.
It is also Liberty Global that owns a 50% stake in All3Media, now shared with Warner Bros. Discovery, and there has been little word yet on where the UK-based production giant will fit into the WBD company map.
Its considerable assets – including 40 prodcos ranging from Fleabag’s Two Brothers Pictures and A Perfect Planet’s Silverback Films to The Circle’s Studio Lambert and All3Media America – could be brought into the International WB Production fold, but that seems unlikely given All3’s international resonance. A reverse move also seems somewhat unlikely, particularly given that WarnerMedia alum Ronald Goes was among key execs who had their new roles confirmed yesterday.
Liberty Global has not made huge content plays but it may decide to take its ownership to 100% and use the production giant to help supply content to companies it owns considerable stakes in, such as ITV. If either of the above scenarios play out, it seems unlikely that All3Media International and Warner Bros. Discovery’s sales arm will remain apart.
The other possibly more likely scenario, according to TBI sources, is that a deep-pocketed private equity firm fishing for chunky assets in the content market will make an offer that looks too good to refuse for both Liberty and WBD.
What next for Joyn?
The merging of the two companies has also thrown up questions as to what will become of their various streaming services in the long term.
We now know that their respective headliners, HBO Max and Discovery+, are going to be merged into a singular streamer at some point in the future, while this week’s announcement that CNN+ is to be shuttered (more on that below) gives some indication as to the fate that lies in store for smaller streamers that fail to pull in sufficient subscribers.
Of course, not every streamer in the Warner Bros. Discovery stable is wholly their own, with the future of Joyn, the OTT joint venture operated by Discovery alongside German broadcaster ProSiebenSat.1, remaining in question (its plans to launch a similar JV with Polsat appear to have stalled).
Discovery had already fixed plans to launch Discovery+ in Germany this summer, via a partnership with Sky Deutschland, before the merger was completed.
While Discovery is best-known as a factual giant and Joyn cut its originals teeth with the scripted drama Dignity, Discovery made its own move into scripted last year after acquiring the rights to Girls With Bright Futures. The two services also boast their own original factual series and formats, with potential rival shows, whether that’s romance in Claudia’s House of Love on Joyn and 90 Day: The Single Life on Discovery+, or true crime with KillerFrauen and American Detective, respectively.
HBO Go-ing, going, gone?
Tracking to Asia, and more specifically, Southeast Asia, a similar story of converging services is in play. WarnerMedia is yet to launch HBO Max into the region – its streaming play is HBO Go – but the company signalled considerable intent earlier this year with a flurry of hires to bolster OTT operations.
Among those was Jason Monteiro, who joined from MENA streamer Shahid to lead HBO Max Southeast Asia, Hong Kong and Taiwan, while iflix alum Mark Francis, Wee Shi Ming, and former SonyLiv exec Saugata Mukherjee also landed in HBO Max branded hot seats.
Just how Warner Bros. Discovery intends to expand further in the region is unclear: flipping the HBO Go brand to HBO Max seems to be in the works but whether that will continue, and whether it is a worthwhile exercise if the latter is then to be subsumed into a single portal – as discussed above, seems doubtful. The marketing cut-through, as HBO Max International chief Johannes Larcher discussed at MIPTV, may be better spent on profiling individual pieces of IP to connect with audiences.
HBO Go, for example, has been expanding rapidly with its scripted fare, securing the pipeline of all new Warner Bros. Pictures shows 45 days after their exclusive theatrical window, with films such as Dune and The Matrix Resurrections, and ordering its own regional originals with shows such as Who’s By Your Side.
There are also questions over the roll-out of Discovery+ in Asia – it is only available in India and the Philippines at present, while its cable networks still count millions of subscribers. Streaming competition across the giant continent differs hugely on a country-to-country basis, of course, but OTT uptake across the region shares a common upwards trajectory that WBD will want to capitalise on to keep pace with Netflix, Disney+ and the numerous regional operators.
Whether it makes sense to launch a standalone streamer this year, however, only then to launch a combined platform 12 months later is another time-sensitive decision to be made.
With interests across scripted, factual, kids’ content, formats and everything in between, the commissioning power of Warner Bros. Discovery is unrivalled.
Now the owner of one of the deepest libraries in the world, it is a $150bn content behemoth with nearly 200,000 hours of programming. Housing networks and brands ranging from DC to Cartoon Network to the Science Channel, the firm holds the rights to everything from Superman to Scooby-Doo to MythBusters.
Needless to say, this puts the company in a highly competitive position and, once the existing HBO Max and Discovery+ are combined, the resulting merged streamer will be able to leverage some formidable IP commissioning power – as well as some seriously deep pockets.
And if Discovery’s standard operating procedure is anything to go by, they’ll be looking for all-rights to any new commissions that fall to firms outside of the WBD empire.
There seems little reason why IP demands will alter much, however. The WarnerMedia kids’ team, for one, have been crystal clear about the content they’re seeking for HBO Max and the linear channels – pre-school series and shows appealing to girls are in high demand – and there’s no reason to think this wishlist will change any time soon.
HBO Max is also increasingly looking to its DC brand lately, with an order for a Doom Patrol spin-off in the past couple of days, as well as a series based around Colin Farrell’s Penguin character from The Batman in recent weeks.
Discovery+, meanwhile, continues to add to its wide-ranging unscripted offering, with recent orders including for Say Yes To The Dress: Dubai, the first Middle East-based spin-off from its TLC reality format, and Indian docuseries Dangals of Crime – The Untold Truth About Indian Wrestling.
The CNN+ example
While a number of outgoing execs departed before the merger was formally completed, there is no clearer indication that Warner Bros. Discovery is determined to rapidly sort the wheat from the chaff in this new Zaslav-led era than the closure of CNN+ this week.
The news and factual-focused SVOD will cease operations on 30 April, just a month after it launched, with Andrew Morse, who headed up the streamer, also exiting the company.
To say that its much-hyped launch was a bit of a disappointment for Chris Licht-led CNN is something of an understatement, with only around 150,000 users signing up to the service, and CNBC reporting that fewer than 10,000 people were using it on a daily basis.
What’s debatable is whether or not CNN+ might have had the chance to make up for this early stumble and pick up steam in a pre-merger world. With so much focus on flagship streamers Discovery+ and HBO Max, this may have just been the opportune time for the new leadership to swiftly shelve the project.
Last but not least…
And while perhaps not upper most in Zaslav’s mind – but important nonetheless to mere mortals on the ground in Cannes – is just what will happen to WarnerMedia at MIPCOM?
Its final hurrah in its current form – complete with that enviable beachside location – came at MIPTV (one assumes). But with WarnerMedia now no longer its own entity, concerns over just where the enlarged WBD will house its meetings come October are surfacing among concerned onlookers.
The answer to that question, along with myriad others, will no doubt have filtered out by MIPCOM but first Zaslav has a summer of activity ahead like never before.