As Discovery and WarnerMedia are set to close their $43B merger later this week, the attention has been focused mainly on the deal’s ramifications for WarnerMedia’s movie and scripted television businesses. There’s been much industry chatter about the importance of Casey Bloys’ scripted television empire and the role of Toby Emmerich as he continues to oversee The Batman film studio.
The pair, alongside Warner Bros. TV boss Channing Dungey, are expected to report directly to David Zaslav under the company’s new structure, which is set to be unveiled shortly.
However, as high-profile these areas are, they also are additive to Discovery’s business, which is only peripherally involved in scripted TV via the company’s venture with Oprah Winfrey OWN. Meanwhile, it is unscripted television where the two merging companies have the biggest overlap and where combining the assets will require consolidation.
It has gone largely under the radar how Discovery, ostensibly a company led entirely by reality television and unscripted execs, will bring together the numerous nonscripted divisions and cable networks, fed largely by that non-fiction pipeline, across the two groups.
Obviously, Discovery execs are keeping quiet until the deal closes, which is expected to come Friday.
Kathleen Finch, who is currently Discovery’s Chief Lifestyle Brands Officer, where she oversees networks including HGTV and TLC, is expected to oversee the enlarged networks group, that will now include Turner networks including TNT, TBS and truTV as well as Cartoon Network, TCM, Adult Swim and Boomerang.
Sources suggest that Finch, who took over that role in 2018 following Discovery’s acquisition of Scripps Network, could oversee all of the company’ linear networks, which includes the T-nets as well as the largely kids group now run by former Freeform boss Tom Ascheim.
Finch knows the linear landscape well; she started as a broadcast journalist, including 12 years at CBS network news, before running programming at Food Network, where she developed series including Ace of Cakes, and becoming President of HGTV and then all of the Scripps networks.
“Kathleen fits the Discovery mold. She’s smart, based in New York, newsy and has no profile so she’s perfect,” said one observer.
She is also considered a “tick above” Nancy Daniels, who is Chief Brand Officer, Discovery and Factual, overseeing Discovery Channel among others. There’s also a possibility that Daniels also takes on an enlarged role.
“David will favor those he knows,” added another source. Daniels has been with the company since 2007, having joined to lead development and production for Discovery’s west coast studios business. “Nancy is a survivor and she’s good, despite not having commissioned a single returning hit in a while.”
On the corporate side, Bruce Campbell, Chief Development, Distribution and Legal Officer and JB Perrette, President and CEO of Streaming and International are set to play a key role as will international boss Gerhard Zeiler.
Other key execs in the Discovery universe that are expected to be key going forward include Jane Latman, Howard Lee and Jason Sarlanis.
Latman, who has been with Discovery since 2003, runs HGTV and recently took control of Food Network after president Courtney White left to launch her own production company. While HGTV and Food Network are not the sexiest of television networks, they are two of the most valuable, particularly given their reach with female audiences.
Lee, as President of TLC, is the man credited with the success of 90 Day Fiancé, arguably Discovery’s most valuable franchise with a multitude of spinoffs. He is well liked within the development and production world and the merged group would marry another idea on that scale in a heartbeat.
He is also thought to work well with Jason Sarlanis, a rising star within Discovery who took over as Crime & Investigative Content, Linear and Streaming boss. The former ABC and E! exec has series such as Keeping Up With The Kardashians on his resume and his rising influence has been notable over the last couple of years.
The big question as it pertains to the WarnerMedia side of the equation is what does this mean for executives such as Ascheim, Brett Weitz, who is General Manager of TNT, TBS and truTV, Corie Henson, who is EVP and Head of Unscripted for TBS, TNT and truTV and Jennifer O’Connell, who is EVP, non-fiction & live-action kids programming at HBO Max.
Henson is behind series such as the reboot of Wipeout, The Cube, Go-Big Show and Harry Potter: Hogwarts Tournament of Houses, the Warner Bros-produced Helen Mirren-fronted competition series that performed well for TBS and Cartoon Network.
O’Connell has also had some hits on the streamer; Selena + Chef was a quarantine production that has been renewed for a fourth season, ballroom competition Legendary is coming back for a third season and the formerly provocatively titled FBoy Island caused much noise.
“FBoy Island might not be Citizen Kane, but that’s their market,” said one source.
The source added that it is likely that the merged company creates a consolidated unit that buys across its division, in a similar way that ABC and Hulu are now under Rob Mills, and NBC, its sister cable networks and Peacock come under Jenny Groom and Rod Aissa, potentially with Daniels overseeing it.
One seller told Deadline that the WarnerMedia execs “haven’t officially cut off the spigot, but there’s been a lot of punting” as they wait to see what happens.
Then there’s the studio side. Channing Dungey will remain in charge of Warner Bros. Television, and it doesn’t look as if there will be an executive layer between the likes of Dungey, Bloys and Emmerich and Zaslav, despite months of rumors linking the likes of Disney’s Peter Rice to a role.
But where does Mike Darnell, President of Unscripted and Alternative Television, fit into the puzzle? Discovery, which has never been a seller of content, would presumably like the studio to supply the engorged pipeline with more in-house produced content (although as a quirk of Discovery’s work-for-hire model, already owns its shows that external producers make for it).
Some have suggested that Darnell gets a bigger role in producing for the Discovery channels alongside selling to third party networks and streamers, and that the “mad genius” behind series such as Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction and Paris Hilton reality series The Simple Life as well as hits such as MasterChef, American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance, is a perfect fit to create the type of stunt programming that Discovery loves.
However, others have cautioned that the mercurial figure might not be a good fit for a Zaslav-run company.
Former NBC executive Zaslav, who is moving into Bob Evans’ infamous Hollywood home, is known to value loyalty, but a number of sources also highlighted the fact that he also judges all of his execs through the prism of ‘What have you done for me lately?’.
“Nothing is going to be weird [with this consolidation]. It’s a mercenary game in a mercenary world. These people do not do chaos, they are ruthless in their clarity,” said one source.
“It is kind of funny that a reality guy is taking over the movie business,” added another.