Succession and Shark Week are together at last.
Exactly 366 days after closing a blockbuster deal to marry Warner Bros. and Discovery, David Zaslav took the upfront stage Wednesday morning for the first time as CEO of the newly merged media behemoth. And he did not mince words. Referring to Rupert Murdoch’s 1980s power play to make the Big Three entertainment platforms a Big Four with his acquisition of 20th Century Fox and the launch of the Fox network, Zaslav asserted this occasion was no less momentous: “Today, Warner Bros. Discovery makes it number five.”
Any reverence for Murdoch ended there. During his eight-minute opening comments, which better recalled a TED Talk than a sales pitch, Zaslav put a particular emphasis on the value of CNN to his new portfolio. “There is no news organization in the world like CNN,” he said, praising the company’s news-gathering skills and comparative lack of opinion programming. “We at CNN advocate for facts and for truth.”
Not 24 hours after rival Disney hammered its own 100th anniversary as an institution, Zaslav also paid his respects to his company’s 99-year history — referencing the actual Warner brothers, “Jewish immigrants from Poland,” Harry, Albert, Jack and Sam — and pioneering cable executive Ted Turner. He eventually got to the shill, and the top notes were not unlike those echoed throughout the week. “We are in the storytelling and talent business,” he said. “We are the largest maker of television and motion picture content in the world.”
What followed, though, was more akin to the upfronts of yore. Yes, there were platitudes and the parade of talent — Mindy Kaling, Lizzo, Chip and Joanna Gaines, Shaquille O’Neal and a pretaped Oprah Winfrey all appeared — but there was also wonky industry speak. Ad sales boss Jon Steinlauf invoked CPMs for perhaps the first time all week and even acknowledged that there are still individual days of the week when some people still watch programs and events at their scheduled time. How novel!
HBO Max and Discovery+, still separate entities for the moment, got ample due throughout the presentation. (The company’s future, after all, hinges on streaming success.) But that’s not what Warner Bros. Discovery led with. The entity, which has almost 20 ad-supported cable channels, front-loaded the morning with its specific cable brands like HGTV, Food Network, TLC, Discovery, TNT and TBS. “Nearly one-third of all cable television viewers in the 25-54 demo are coming to our US, ad-supported, entertainment networks every single night,” said US Networks Group chair and chief content officer Kathleen Finch.
The closest thing to an emcee for the event, Jennifer Hudson offered a preview of her upcoming daytime talk show (produced by the studio, but airing on Fox channels) with a rehearsed bit. She interviewed HGTV talent Lil Jon and Property Brother Jonathan Scott — “Drew is not here, because he’s an asshole,” he conceded. “I’m your favorite moving forward” — and eventually wrapped the event with a literal show-stopping cover of Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.”
Hudson, however, was not the most important talk show host to make an appearance. Winfrey, CEO of the OWN Network, sanctified both the event and her merged company with a pretaped message that got the kind of applause only reserved for, well, Oprah. She noted that Warner Bros. produced her film debut, The Color Purple, referred to Zaslav as “Mr. Z” and, in one of the morning’s many callbacks to the past, even acknowledged the difficulty of launching her cable network over a decade ago. “It wasn’t always easy,” she said, “but that’s what made it so meaningful.”
Winfrey joined Zaslav in making a nod to CNN and newly installed CEO Chris Licht. He took the stage soon after, echoing his boss’ promise of a news gathering in an era marred by misinformation. “We intend to challenge the traditional philosophy of cable news,” said Licht, “delivering programming and commentary that questions the status quo, shatters groupthink, holds our leaders on both sides of the aisle accountable to the facts and fights fearlessly to get to the truth.”
It wasn’t all that serious. Once the event shifted to the company’s crown jewels, HBO and HBO Max, the crowd perked up. Kaling got ahead of any trolls criticizing her Southeast Asian reimagining of Scooby-Doo character Velma — “No one’s imaginations ever had a problem with a talking dog solving mysteries, so I think we can handle a brown Velma” — but the biggest laughs were reserved for Lizzo. Plugging her new documentary on HBO (the “Head Bitch Organization,” as she put it), she then launched into a clip of the project.
“I put blood, sweat, tears and pussy juice into this documentary,” said Lizzo, copping to having no prompter or filter.
Following Amy Schumer the day before, it was the second unexpected invocation of the p-word at the upfronts so far — and likely what the audience will remember most fondly from the event. After all, as Discovery exec JB Perrette said toward the end: “No one subscribes to a streaming service because of its business plan.”