Poor David Zaslav! The guy just wants to launch his new streaming network while also hosting an enormous party in the south of France, but everyone keeps shouting at him. On Twitter, on picket lines, at a college commencement ceremony: nothing but grief! How did this particular mega-millionaire media exec become this week’s defining symbol of capitalism’s gross excesses?
Who is David Zaslav?
He is the 63-year-old CEO and president of Warner Bros. Discovery, the company that was formed when the Zaslav-headed Discovery Inc. gobbled up WarnerMedia in 2022.
What was David Zaslav’s week supposed to look like?
This was a big week for Zaslav! He was invited to deliver the commencement address at Boston University, the place he went to law school. Quite an honor. This was also the week that his company launched its new streaming service, Max, which will carry selections from the combined libraries of HBO, Warner Bros., the Discovery Channel, and more. Plus, he was headed to Cannes for a big party to celebrate 100 years of Warner Bros. Yes, the Writers Guild strike is still roiling Hollywood. (Slate staffers are members of the Writers Guild’s news division and are therefore not on strike.) Still, that all really sounds like fun.
How did his commencement address go?
One minute and 21 seconds into the speech, a person in the audience shouted, “Fuck you, you piece of shit!” during a pause between sentences.
You can really see him being like, Jesus, do I have to do this whole speech? The mirrored shades he wore up on the podium helped mask how uncomfortable he felt, although they also had the effect of making him look like, well, a caricature of an unfeeling millionaire.
What was his speech about?
It was boilerplate “Five Things I Learned on My Journey” fare, a chance for him to tell his career and life story while also making points like “Do what you love” and “Never get outworked.” Through pretty much the entire speech, a vocal portion of the student body booed him and chanted “Pay your writers!” [Clap, clap, clap clap clap.]
At one point Zaslav cited Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, telling him that it was important to get along with everyone, even though “some people will be looking for a fight.” That got a big Bronx cheer, and Zaslav delivered a jaunty thumbs-up. Toward the end of the speech, he quoted his father’s wisdom: “Be respectful of other people, and everything is possible.” Then he repeated that line, for emphasis. This led to his only real ovation, from the non-protesters in the crowd (and many professors and administrators on the dais).
Did anyone notice all the booing?
Here are stories about David Zaslav getting booed on NBC, CBS, NPR, the Hollywood Reporter, Vanity Fair, the New York Post, WBUR, Entertainment Weekly, Reuters, and the Los Angeles Times.
That’s a lot of noticing.
Also noticing: Bernie Sanders.
Aren’t there other overpaid executives who could just as easily turn into whipping boys for the sins of an entire industry?
Sure! Netflix has two CEOs, for example, who also make enormous amounts of money and have surely stiffed way more WGA members in their careers than even David Zaslav, who’s spent a lot of his career working in unscripted TV. But Zaslav really seems to have a knack for stepping on rakes in public since he assumed power at the new company, starting with his decision to kill a bunch of projects (including some, like Batgirl, that were basically in the can) as a tax write-off. Just last week he made news for being basically the only person on earth defending CNN chief Chris Licht’s decision to host a Donald Trump town hall. (CNN is part of Warner Bros. Discovery; it does not appear that CNN covered Zaslav’s BU speech.) Plus, as you can see from that story about CNN, he cannot stop wearing those sunglasses in photos.
Well, at least his new product launch must have gone great.
Well, people already thought it was sort of dumb that Zaslav’s new company was taking a well-respected, beloved brand (HBO) and combining it with stuff like Dr. Pimple Popper and shoving it all into a new app with a name most people my age, at least, associate with soft-core porn. Then, as many onetime subscribers discovered, if you opened up your old HBO Max app, you didn’t get any kind of message telling you to visit all your favorite shows at their new home, Max. Instead, here’s what you saw:
That’s not ideal, but that’s just a UI problem, easily fixable. I bet—
Then a Film Twitter personality with the delightful sobriquet “John Frankensteiner” noticed that on the new Max, directors and writers were no longer individually credited—just lumped into a new category called “Creators,” such that, for example, Martin Scorsese was listed as one of the “Creators” of Raging Bull alongside seven other people, including screenwriter Paul Schrader, producer Irwin Winkler, and real-life boxer Jake LaMotta. Immediately, the Directors Guild, which had previously clashed mildly with the writers about the strike, released a statement joining the WGA in decrying the change. “This devaluation of the individual contributions of artists is a disturbing trend and the DGA will not stand for it,” said union president Lesli Linka Glatter. It was a show of solidarity of the type a striking union might dream of. Within hours, Warner Bros. Discovery had pledged to fix the credits, claiming that it was “an oversight.”
Whew! Rough week for that company. Presumably David Zaslav was managing all these crises, right?
Well, he was in the south of France, introducing the new jewel in HBO’s—uh, Max’s—crown, the Sam Levinson/the Weeknd series The Idol, which premiered at Cannes. Slate’s Sam Adams echoed the feelings of most critics when he compared the show’s artistry and subtlety to a bukkake video.
What’s a bu—
Don’t Google it!!!!
Is this where the party happened?
Yes! Co-hosted with Graydon Carter, former editor of Vanity Fair and current editor of upmarket newsletter Air Mail, the party was held at the Hôtel du Cap. Dom Pérignon, a sponsor, kept everyone awash in Champagne, and the guest list was star-studded: Leonardo DiCaprio, Scarlett Johansson, Lily-Rose Depp, even famed Creator Martin Scorsese. New York magazine’s Shawn McCreesh got a chance to ask Zaslav how he’s feeling about the strike, and the mogul struck a careful tone: “Look, it’s painful, because some of my best friends are writers and there’s no way that you can tell great stories—and this entire business is dependent on great writers and great stories—and so ultimately I’m the biggest advocate for great writers, and not only should they be paid fairly, but they should feel fully valued. And so that’s the journey, and I hope it gets settled quickly.”
Well, that’s pretty good. Surely this party was not covered, at least by business-friendly outlets like the Wall Street Journal, in a way that suggests that all the people David Zaslav hangs out with are out-of-touch rich idiots who have no idea what everyday people are dealing with?
Well, what’s next for David Zaslav?
“I have to get back to my journey now,” Zaslav said at the end of his BU speech, to a chorus of boos. “Because I’m still going. More to do, more to see, and more to learn.” Luckily, as noted in innumerable picket signs, WGA press releases, and tweets, he earned $246.6 million in compensation in 2021. So, shout all you want, striking writers and starry-eyed college graduates! David Zaslav’s journey, despite everything, is likely to be a smooth one.