WGA members have picketed each of the TV upfronts thus far, and on Wednesday morning, strikers did not miss an opportunity to stick it to David Zaslav at Warner Bros. Discovery’s presentation to advertisers. Or more accurately, they did so from an NYPD-controlled pen immediately outside the presentation venue.
Inside The Theater at Madison Square Garden, adjacent to where Zaslav’s beloved New York Knicks play, the chief executive’s immediate underlings shared their respective upcoming slates to the media buyers in attendance. That’s a task normally reserved for celebrities, a thrill for the folks who financially support a program via television commercials. While actors has consistently avoided each upfront event this year in solidarity with their writers, NBCUniversal, Fox, and Disney each had in-person unscripted talent at their presentations; WBD went fully without.
“We made the decision to only have executives on stage out of respect for our talent, and the WGA,” Warner Bros. Discovery’s chief U.S. ad-sales officer Jon Steinlauf (pictured above) said at the very top of the program, acknowledging that this “was not exactly the show we were hoping to do.” Zaslav was in attendance, Steinlauf said, but he did not take the stage this year nor was he put on screen. Without the celebs, at least put up the celebrity executive.
Instead, following Steinlauf were fellow execs including CNN’s Chris Licht, WBD’s sports chief Luis Silberwasser, its streaming boss JB Perrette, lifestyle programming leader Kathleen Finch, inclusive partnerships head Sheereen Russell (pictured below), and HBO’s Casey Bloys. Some unscripted talent, like Anderson Cooper and the “NBA on TNT” gang, sent in well wishes via video.
Bloys began his turn by expressing his hope for a “fair resolution” to the WGA vs. AMPTP standoff, acknowledging how much better the upfront would have been with talent, not senior executives. “First, let me just start by saying I am hopeful that a fair resolution is found soon with writers… returning talent to stage, let’s be honest, making this a far more entertaining show,” he said. “Until then, you’re kind of stuck with me and my clips.”
You ain’t kidding, Casey. When Warner Bros. Discovery’s chief revenue officer Bruce Campbell closed to show, a member of the general audience seated immediately behind us asked, “That it?” It was.
The crowd did not get live music (Grace Potter, Reba McIntyre, Nick Jonas) like it did from NBCU. There were no autographed footballs (Rob Gronkowski, Michael Strahan) and baseballs (Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter) like at Fox. Disney at least delivered The Kardashians, athletes, and ESPN talent.
Zaslav’s low-key presence Wednesday was likely by design. The longtime television executive has been a prominent target of the WGA and many of its members’ protest signs — even at non-WBD events. Why? Well, for starters, the corporate overlord’s compensation was nearly $40 million in 2022, making him among the highest of the high-paid media executives. The ratio between Zaslav’s pay and the median (not average) employee’s pay for that year (about $173,000) was 227:1.
If you think that’s bad, in 2021, the final (full) year of his Discovery-only tenure, Zaslav recognized more than $246 million in his all-in package, according to an SEC filing, of which the extra $200 million or so came from option awards. The WGA thinks it’s all bad: On Tuesday, the union put out numbers stating that the Warner Bros. burden for settling the strike would be $47 million annually, or about 1 percent of the overall company’s yearly revenue. (Or, a bit more than Zaslav makes in a typical year.)
Here, Warner Bros. Discovery accountants would surely like us to note that an executive’s reported compensation is not quite as simple as Zaslav getting a check for $246,571,481; some of it comes that way, sure, but much of a C-suite member’s compensation comes in equity and is dependent upon a company reaching certain targets. The April 2022 merger between Discovery, Inc. and former AT&T subsidiary Warner Bros. only further complicates matters here. At the time, the median Discovery, Inc. employee’s salary was about $83,000, or 2,917-times less than Zaslav’s package.
On Wednesday, Warner Bros. Discovery announced a new All Elite Wrestling (AEW) show for Saturdays on TNT, an ID true-crime series executive produced by Michael Bay, a Conan O’Brien international travel series for Max, a “Joe Schmo Show” reboot at TBS, and a Food Network show starring Selena Gomez, to name a few talking points.