One day after Disney’s nostalgia-saturated upfront presentation, Warner Bros. Discovery chief executive officer David Zaslav struck the same — somewhat stilted — tone of reverence to old Hollywood. At the newly unified company’s inaugural upfront — from the theater at Madison Square Garden — Zaslav opined about the magic of storytelling and the massive reach of the company that boasts more than a dozen ad-supported cable channels, the storied Warner Bros. TV and film studios, premium content distributor HBO and its all-important streaming business, which will at some point combine HBO Max and Discovery+.
Taking the stage after a long highlight reel that ended with a clip of his favorite movie — the 1941 Humphrey Bogart classic “The Maltese Falcon” — Zaslav invoked the company’s visionaries including Harry, Albert, Jack and Sam Warner, “Jewish immigrants from Poland” who “made the first talkies possible”; John Malone, the largest Discovery shareholder and a pointed CNN critic; CNN founder Ted Turner, and Time Warner executive Steve Ross, who “created a company where creatives felt fully seen and valued.”
“We are in the storytelling and talent business. We are the largest maker of television and motion picture content in the world. We intend to carry forth the visions of these and other industry leaders,” said Zaslav. “We’re highly confident in our ability to thrive both creatively and financially.”
On the latter point, the shuttering of CNN+ — after bleeding more than $300 million — may have been the butt of jokes from Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel at NBCUniversal and Disney upfronts, respectively. But Zaslav and new CNN CEO Chris Licht have clearly moved on. They both hammered home a facts-first approach that Malone (and others) have accused CNN of forsaking in its reliance on pundits and opinionated primetime hosts. (Though it should be noted that CNN does far less of it than either Fox News or MSNBC.)
Signaling something of a course correction, Zaslav promised that CNN would serve audiences “who are seeking more facts and news content and less yelling and conflict.”
Licht echoed that sentiment. At a time when “extremes are dominating cable news, we seek to go a different way,” he said, promising to “deliver programming and commentary that shatters the status quo, challenges group think and holds our leaders on both sides of the aisle to account.”
Anderson Cooper was on hand to reinforce the network’s news bonafides and Licht prompted Chris Wallace to stand for a round of applause from the audience. Wallace was lured to CNN+ by Licht’s predecessor Jeff Zucker, who was ousted earlier this year for various improprieties, which he has denied.
Licht noted that Wallace’s interview program, “Look Who’s Talking to Chris Wallace,” will this fall move to Sunday nights on CNN and also be available on HBO Max. He also promised an overhaul of the network’s morning show and teased a “topical long-form news show” featuring a corps of “existing correspondents and contributors” that will air Sunday evenings on CNN. The latter sounds a lot like “60 Minutes,” the iconic and still unrivaled weekly news program at CBS News, where Licht used to work.
Jennifer Hudson emceed the 90-minute-plus presentation and also introduced her upcoming WB-produced daytime talk show (which will air on Fox stations) by interviewing HGTV’s Lil Jon and “Property Brothers’” Jonathan Scott, sans brother Drew. “Drew is not here because he’s an a–hole,” Jonathan explained. “I’m your favorite going forward.”
There were also appearances from Chip and Joanna Gaines, Shaun White (promoting his Discovery+ documentary series) and Oprah Winfrey, via a pre-taped video. Mindy Kaling offered a preview of “Velma,” her animated “Scooby-Doo” prequel for HBO Max in which she voices Velma Dinkley. “No one’s imaginations ever had a problem with a talking dog solving mysteries,” she said, “so I think we can handle a brown Velma.”
There were ribald appearances from Lizzo and Shaquille O’Neal, who asked in a bit with Wayne Gretzky and Pedro Martínez promoting the company’s sports assets: “Mr. Zaslav, if I punch Charles Barkley in the face, are you going to fire me?”
But Lizzo earned the most voluble reaction from the audience. Promoting an upcoming documentary series for HBO (or as she characterized the network, “the Head B—h Organization”), the outspoken singer exuberantly told the assembled crowd that she put “a lot of blood, sweat, tears and p—- juice into this documentary.” Repeating the p-word, just in case the cheap seats didn’t get it.
Taking the stage after Lizzo, a chortling JB Perrette, WBD’s head of streaming, shrugged, “Well, no one subscribes to a streaming service for its business plan.”