It must have been quite a shock to the captain of industry—standing at the lectern at his alma matter, resplendent in his red-and-black graduation regalia—when he realized the Boston University Class of 2023 was booing him. David Zaslav, president and CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery, was delivering the commencement address, recalling how the late General Electric CEO Jack Welch once told him, “If you want to be successful, you’re going to have to figure out how to get along with everyone—and that includes difficult people.”
But instead of listening to his pearls of wisdom, the students were heckling him. Others had turned their backs to the stage. Now more were chanting, “Pay your writers,” as Zaslav, a studio head, was one of the oft-invoked villains of the striking Writers Guild of America.
He tried to press on with his story, continuing to quote Welch: “Some people will be looking for a fight.” The booing continued.
Zaslav later issued a statement thanking BU for the invitation, and insisting, “as I have often said, I am immensely supportive of writers and hope the strike is resolved soon and in a way that they feel recognizes their value.” But he had been humiliated, openly and unapologetically, and while he was duly kowtowed after the fact—BU President Robert Brown publicly apologized for the incident, blaming it on “cancel culture”—he must’ve wondered, somewhere in the back of his mind, how it had come to this.
In a relatively short period of time, David Zaslav has become perhaps the most hated man in Hollywood. Few people who weren’t industry insiders even knew his name two years ago, when Discovery merged with WarnerMedia to become Warner Bros. Discovery. Zaszlav had been CEO of Discovery Communications since 2006, where he oversaw the transition from, in his words, “no longer a cable company, (but) a content company.” What that meant, from a viewer’s perspective, was Discovery’s transition from educational programming to reality slop—which is, of course, a much more lucrative business model.
In his (slight) defense, there were considerable challenges awaiting the CEO of the new Warner Bros. Discovery conglomerate, whomever that might have been. Warner Bros. had, like most motion picture studios, struggled considerably during the pandemic. Their decision to simultaneously stream their entire 2021 theatrical slate on the HBOMax streaming service upset other filmmakers, including those whose films were impacted by it (and theatrical chains as well). One example? Christopher Nolan, who’s enormously profitable relationship with WB began back in 2002, was so pissed that he took his new film Oppenheimer to Universal out of frustration by the company’s poor handling of his 2020 feature Tenet.
In retrospect, the right person for the job of healing those wounds and reestablishing relationships with filmmakers might not have been the guy best known for shepherding the likes of Naked and Afraid, Dr. Pimple Popper, and My 600-lb Life. And, to be fair, figures from the world of reality TV are often seen with suspicion, if not outright snobbery, by those responsible for scripted fare. But Zaslav did himself no favors, and did little to blur that binary, when announcing the merger of the HBOMax and Discovery+ streaming services in a quarterly earnings call—which included a much-derided infographic deeming HBOMax’s scripted programming as “male skew,” “appointment viewing,” and “lean in” (?), while Discovery+’s unscripted shows were “female skew” “comfort viewing,” and thus ”le