What is going to happen to the unscripted department at HBO Max? It’s a question that the TV industry had been asking before Discovery and WarnerMedia even tied the knot in April to become Warner Bros. Discovery. But after recently crossing the 100-day post-merger-mark and approaching the company’s second quarter earnings reveal next Thursday, the question is being raised more and more by those outside and within the David Zaslav-run company — which has more cooks in its unscripted programming kitchen than it needs — especially if it’s still intent on hitting its promised $3 billion cost-saving synergies over the next three years, and working to reduce its approximately $55 billion debt load on a market cap of $36.3 billion.
“David Zaslav is both a very clever and smart man and, some would say, I’m not saying it, some would say, also a ruthless business man,” Peter Newman, head of the NYU Tisch School of the Arts and the Stern School of Business’ dual MBA-MFA degree, told Variety. “And he needs to pull several rabbits out of the hat. And he’s done it before. Who would have thought that you would pull together these nonsense channels, Food Network and the Discovery channels and Eurosport, and turn it into something that is in control of WarnerMedia. There’s no doubt that he’s going to succeed in making those $3 billion in cuts. The obvious thing is to look at redundancies.”
OG Discovery has long been the home of comfort food lifestyle programming, going further into that lane with its 2018 acquisition of Scripps. Run by Kathleen Finch, the portfolio includes Food Network, HGTV, TLC, Animal Planet, Discovery Channel and Cooking Channel, as well as young streamer Discovery+ and Magnolia Network — Discovery’s streaming/linear combo joint venture with “Fixer Upper” stars Chip and Joanna Gaines. (Soon after the close of the merger, Magnolia Network programming was moved under HBO and HBO Max content chief Casey Bloys, signaling a specific level of prestige designated to the brand by Zaslav.)
Meanwhile, several of Discovery’s newly acquired WarnerMedia properties, most recently owned by AT&T, also house unscripted divisions churning out content, including CNN, HBO, HBO Max and the so-called “T-Nets”: TNT, TBS and TruTV.
Add all that up and you get a lot of people working on unscripted content that have joined a company that specifically deals in unscripted content and is already staffed up to keep doing so. You also have a company that has promised it will ultimately combine its two streamers, HBO Max and Discovery+, into one platform, though no timetable has been given for doing so just yet.
“We all know the end game is ‘one company, one product.’ But that takes time,” one insider at a legacy Discovery brand told Variety. “Unscripted is having a really hard time right now — ratings are down and budgets have been demolished. I think the future of unscripted and what kind of role WBD wants to play in that world long term is probably one of the biggest question marks at this point and perhaps part of the reason for lack of clarity in terms of strategy. Another big question mark is how badly will those unscripted teams get gutted? It seems like everyone is still just waiting for that other shoe to drop before even thinking about ‘strategy.’”
Zaslav and co. have already made some big decisions in this space, doing away with CNN+ immediately and deciding to pivot TNT, TBS and TruTV into becoming strictly unscripted-focused channels. But the ax has yet to fall at the place being most closely inspected for redundancies and inefficiencies in the unscripted realm: HBO Max.
Right now, HBO Max has a growing lineup of reality, competition and lifestyle fare that includes “Selena + Chef,” “FBoy Island,” “Legendary,” “The Great Pottery Throw Down,” “Sweet Life: Los Angeles” and Dan Levy’s upcoming “The Big Brunch,” among others.
“I think all the HBO Max people are going to go away and it’s going to be all Discovery people, and they’re just going to rename it something else. I don’t know what else they’re going to do,” an agent dealing in unscripted content said. “David Zaslav obviously has a team in place that he totally trusts, that’s clear as day. And I think that HBO Max has done well, in part because of the pandemic, but for them to name HBO Max — which is essentially the Warner Bros. catalog — HBO Max felt like it was hanging onto the coattails of HBO, which is distinguished and established a name for itself long ago. So my only question is will HBO proper live within that new structure, or outside of that?”
One WBD insider tells Variety that decisions will finally be made soon and a re-org plan will be announced during next week’s Q2 earnings call by Zaslav and his streaming chief JB Perrette about the future of HBO Max and unscripted across the board at Warner Bros. Discovery. But until then, those on both the WB and D sides are awaiting answers while trying to do their usual jobs amid a sea of uncertainty.
Internal sources at HBO and HBO Max say they are still in the dark about plans, and continue to operate with uncertainty surrounding how much longer they will be in business. But as of today, the company line is that HBO and HBO Max’s unscripted departments are alive, though they’re clearly not well.
“It’s sort of business as usual,” Warner Bros. Discovery employee working within a Discovery lifestyle brand said. “There have been layoffs and it’s less people doing more work. But I know that more of the shake-up has been on the Warner side. They just have more people, we’re lighter. I think we’re just generally smaller. I think everyone is just waiting.”
“In this bloodbath that is the streaming wars, the Warner group of companies is seemingly a very good fit with the reality programming,” Newman said. “If you take the legacy and the studios, the films and television and everything else that Warners and HBO have, and then add this component that’s mostly reality and home and garden and throw in Eurosports, it seems to be a good mix and there is add redundancy. And heads are going to fall — some justified, some not justified. I guess the question is how does he meet these mandated goals through a combination of reducing redundancy, but also just cutting out entire networks, shows and employees without in any way sacrificing the real value of the entire operation.”
(Pictured: HBO Max’s “Selena + Chef”)