David Zaslav Says Charter-Disney Fight Feels Like “A Moment” As WBD CEO Talks Carriage Deals, CNN & Hollywood Strikes

“I don’t know that much in particular about this dispute, but it feels like this is a moment,” said Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav about the current showdown between big cable provider Charter and the Disney.

“It’s not clear if this is a moment that gets resolved quickly — and we are back to having an industry that is in secular decline … or whether this is a more meaningful moment,” he told investors at a Goldman Sachs media conference today when asked about the story du jour that so far appears to be the latter, with Charter drawing a line in the sand. The parent of Spectrum Cable wants to pay less for Disney content, including ESPN, in fact to restructure the entire agreement, and has said it will seek similar terms from all of its programming providers as contracts expire and the cable bundle continues to wither.

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Linear networks make up about half of WBD’s revenue. Zaslav is aware and said his management is doing everthing it can, preparing for a linear meltdown ever since Warner Bros. and Discovery merged 16 months ago. He called it a “relentless mission” to restructure “for the world we live in today.” That said, the company’s channels are reasonably priced, he believes, and, although the clock is ticking, WBD doesn’t have any carriage deals coming up for renewal until 2025.

Re-launching Max, adding an ad-light version, debuting live CNN news on the streamer shortly, and, eventually, adding live sports, is all part of the push. So is paying down the company’s massive debt. It’s “command and control of all our assets, including IP” and “all of that work was to put ourselves in a position where we were ready for a moment just like this.”

He praised CNN’s new leader Mark Thompson, former director general of the BBC, and executive who transformed the New York Times into a digital powerhouse.

On streaming sports, he said an announcement is coming soon.

Asked about the ongoing Hollywood strikes, which have gone on longer than the company anticipated in its financial guidance last quarter, Zaslav said the work stoppages are “really about people, and writers and actors that have been out for a very long period of time. And we are a content company, a storytelling company. We need to do all we can to get people back to work. But, more importantly, people need to be compensated fairly and they need to feel valued.”

He noted that Warner Bros. pushed Dune: Part Two into 2024 as the strikes shuffle release schedules. “We are just hopeful as a company that we can get the strikes resolved.”

Meanwhile, the lengthy strikes, by shutting down much production, are both helping to boost the company’s free cash flow, and cutting into earnings. Yesterday, WBD changed its full-year 2023 financial estimates to include a profit hit of up to $500 million, but free cash flow well above $5 billion, which was already the high end of its previous projection.

“It will be meaningfully more than $5 [billion],” he said.

“We are just hopeful as a company that we can get the strikes resolved.” He noted that the company had to push Dune: Part Two from November until March of 2024.

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