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Warner Bros. Discovery leadership team draws ire over diversity

David Zaslav.Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

(Bloomberg) — As David Zaslav prepared to take over Warner Bros. Discovery Inc., one of the largest media companies in the world, he told friends in Hollywood that he would hire the best people he could find. Gender and racial diversity, while a factor, would not be his top priority, he said, according to multiple people he told.

His methods have resulted in a notable amount of homogeneity at the top of the new media giant. Given six seats on the new company’s board, Zaslav and Discovery appointed a roster of all white male directors. The majority of the chief executive officer’s 13 direct reports, many of whom were recent hires, are white men. Meanwhile, Zaslav in April fired Warner Bros. chief Ann Sarnoff, one of the highest-ranking women in Hollywood — without filling her role — and replaced WarnerMedia’s heads of communications and finance with white men from Discovery.

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Lawmakers and advocacy groups say these staffing changes have heightened concerns that Discovery is bringing its poor track-record on diversity since merging with WarnerMedia in April. Late last year a group of US legislators, including Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren and Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chair Joaquin Castro, sent a letter to the Justice Department outlining concerns about the merger, including warnings about representation at the company and on screen. People of color accounted for just 30 per cent of Discovery’s workforce going into the merger, according to its public filings—the lowest share of any major media company.

“Discovery over the years had done a poor job in terms of Latino representation in almost every facet of their business — on screen, behind the camera, executives and so forth,” Castro said.

WarnerMedia, on the other hand, had established “innovative ways of helping to diversify the company,” Castro said. There, Chief Inclusion Officer Christy Haubegger had built a team of more than 50 people that launched a host of initiatives; people of color held 41 per cent of jobs as of last year. Castro said he was concerned that under Discovery “those efforts would go away.”

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The team was without leadership for months after Haubegger announced her departure as the merger was being finalized. On Thursday, Warner Bros. Discovery filled that role appointing Asif Sadiq as its Chief Global Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer. Sadiq notably came from WarnerMedia, not Discovery, where he worked on its diversity and inclusion efforts.

In recent months, a coalition of about a half-dozen groups, including the National Urban League and the League of United Latin American Citizens, has met with Zaslav’s team hoping to convince Warner Bros. Discovery to publicly commit to diversifying its workforce. The company has not yet agreed to do that, and the group sees Zaslav’s new hires as red flags.

“When the announcement of the board was made, LULAC was deeply disappointed in fact that there were no Latinos represented,” said Sindy Benavides, the chief executive officer of LULAC. The board has three women and five people of color because of WarnerMedia-owner AT&T’s picks, though none are Hispanic or Latino.

A Warner Bros. Discovery spokesperson told Bloomberg News that the company is committed to diversity and will build on programs already in place. He declined to speak further about hiring practices, though executives close to Zaslav rejected the claims that its behavior fits into any kind of pattern. (No one has accused Warner Bros. Discovery of malice or overt discrimination.) They also asked for patience. In a matter of months, Zaslav has transitioned from running a company with a few thousand employees to one with tens of thousands.

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Bloomberg News, which competes with Warner Bros. Discovery’s CNN unit in providing news and information, has initiatives to improve representation in terms of gender, ethnicity and race at every level of the newsroom. Every major media company has struggled with hiring workers more reflective of the country and telling a broader array of stories.

Boosting representation of minorities and women is a business imperative for the entertainment industry. Breakout hits such as “Black Panther,” “Crazy Rich Asians” and Jordan Peele’s movies have time and again proven there’s serious money to be made in getting women and minorities on all sides of the camera. One of WarnerMedia’s most popular original movies on HBO Max this year was a “Father of the Bride” remake that featured a Latino family at the center.

Yet, Hollywood is still missing out on $10 billion in sales every year by not hiring more Black talent and telling more Black-led stories, a 2021 report by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. found. And while Hispanic and Latino Americans go to the movies at the highest rate of all races and ethnicities in the US, they made up just 5.9 per cent of all characters in the biggest 100 movies of 2019 — far less than their share of the broader population.

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“They are leaving a lot of money on the table,” Castro said.

Zaslav isn’t unfamiliar with the lucrative upside in reaching new and different audiences. In 2008, he partnered with media mogul Oprah Winfrey to start her eponymous TV network, one of the most popular among Black viewers. Warner Bros. Discovery is now a majority owner of the property and Zaslav had Winfrey come into the office to interview him in front of employees in April.

Still, when it comes to hiring Zaslav has a long history of tapping people with whom he has deep ties — a practice that is well-known to thwart diversity efforts. Research has found people tend to network with those who come from similar backgrounds and who look like them.

When CNN head Jeff Zucker resigned earlier this year, Zaslav hired his friend, award-winning TV producer Chris Licht, to take his place. He also hired Discovery veteran Luis Silberwasser to oversee sports, which had also been under Zucker’s purview; Silberwasser is the only Latino person who directly reports to Zaslav.

Research has found newly merged companies tend to fire a disproportionate percentage of women and people of color. Zaslav’s history at Discovery also made Castro and his peers nervous. People of color accounted for 20 per cent of Discovery’s senior leadership, according to its public filings, worse than any major media company; Latinos held just 5 per cent of the top jobs.

Since sending their letter last year, the coalition of organizations representing underrepresented employees have met with Warner Bros. Discovery several times this year.

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They’re lobbying Warner Bros. Discovery to sign a memorandum of understanding, a public commitment to take certain steps to diversify its workforce. While it isn’t a binding contract, its public nature helps hold companies to account. Comcast agreed to a memorandum when it acquired NBCUniversal, as did T-Mobile and Sprint after their merger.

The company hasn’t decided whether it will sign the memorandum, according to two people familiar with the company’s thinking.

“We’re looking carefully to see what Warner Bros. Discovery does in the coming months,” said Benavides. “They could tell us a fairy tale. But if it doesn’t follow with action… that’s what we monitor most closely.”