Warner Bros. Discovery 2023 Upfront Takeaways: Zaslav Sits This One Out, Talent Shifts from Stage to Screen and Max Is the Real Star

Warner Bros. Discovery kicked off its 2023 upfront presentation in a no-frills way, with an overall brand sizzle and ad chief Jon Steinlauf giving a few remarks on stage at the Theater at Madison Square Garden Wednesday.

While the presentation covering HBO, Max, CNN, Food Network, HGTV, Discovery and more Warner Bros. Discovery brands was shorter than last year’s show (which was the company’s first since the merger that created it last April) the tight 90-minute presentation still covered each of its key divisions. Albeit, with much less sizzle, with no stars in attendance amid the writers strike.

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“Let me just start by saying I am hopeful that a fair resolution is found soon with the writers,” HBO and Max chief Casey Bloys said, adding that he hopes for a return of talent to the stage, “making this a far more entertaining show” compared to “me and my clips.”

See Variety‘s top takeaways from the Warner Bros. Discovery 2023 upfront below.

No Talent, Just the Bosses

As Variety reported earlier this week, no talent was expected to make in-person appearances at the advertiser-focused event due to the writers strike. Ad chief Jon Steinlauf confirmed this would be the case at the top of show, noting this upfront was “not exactly the show we expected to do today.”

“We made the decision to only have executives on stage out of respect for our talent, and the WGA,” Steinlauf said. Outside, members of the WGA were picketing to bring awareness to the strike and the guild’s inability to reach a new contract deal with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP).

Along with Steinlauf, WBD execs in attendance included Zaslav, streaming boss JB Perrette, CNN leader Chris Licht, chief revenue and strategy officer Bruce Campbell, US Networks chairman Kathleen Finch, HBO and Max boss Casey Bloys, ad sales and inclusion exec Sheereen Russell and WBD sports head Luis Silberwasser.

Talent that appeared in pre-recorded clips included Jason Momoa, Guy Fieri, Anderson Cooper, Ernie Johnson, Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith, Shaquille O’Neal, Mindy Kaling, Robin Thede, Dwyane Wade, Aarón Sánchez, Taylor Rooks, Kimmi and Maurice Scott, Skye Townsend and Darnell Ferguson.

Unlike NBCU’s taped interviews with creators and talent shown at its Monday upfront (which included a disclaimer stating they were filmed in April, ahead of the strike) there was no indication given as to when these spots were completed.

Mega Max Talk

Ahead of its May 23 launch, WBD’s combined HBO Max-Discovery+ product, Max, was top of mind during the upfront. Almost every sizzle that ran and every exec that took the stage boasted about how much of WBD’s content would be represented on the new platform.

Like its predecessors HBO Max and Discovery+ (the latter of which will remain a standalone service), Max will have an ad-supported tier, which explained the numerous plugs in front of the audience full of buyers.

However, the focus remained on Max as a product, rather than big programming news — as a slew of those announcements were made last month at a streaming-focused presentation revealing the platform’s title. Bloys did get the chance to reveal a premiere date for “And Just Like That…” Season 2 (June 22) on stage.

“Max will be the one service with unparalleled breadth and genre defining content in each category,” streaming chief JB Perrette said.

CNN and Sports Fill Time

CNN chief Chris Licht talked up news (and the network’s upcoming “Juneteenth: A Global Celebration for Freedom” event at the Greek Theatre) and sports exec Luis Silberwasser cheered on sports ahead of packages featuring their key talent.

“Our core commitment to delivering the news truthfully, transparently and without fear or favor,” Licht said. “That’s what’s helping us win the day with younger, more educated, more affluent, more diverse audience.” He then used a plug for a new on-screen look and graphics package coming to CNN next month to intro his star, “I think you can see it’s a significant improvement. It’s clean, modern, and very easy to look at. Just like Anderson Cooper.”

Cooper took over in a recorded bit featuring new CNN primetime host Kaitlan Collins. Then sports was up, and the WBD upfront got its own halftime report from the NBA on TNT team: Ernie Johnson, Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Shaquille O’Neal.

Big Names With Unscripted Projects

Several titles starring A-list talent were revealed during the presentation, including two new Food Network series hosted by Selena Gomez, a “Shark Week” collaboration with “Aquaman” Jason Momoa, an ID deal with Michael Bay and a new travel show with Conan O’Brien at Max.

In a more unexpected announcement, Discovery announced a teaming with Ellen DeGeneres for a series about saving gorillas, marking the comedian’s first project since her long-running talkshow concluded in the wake of accusations of mistreatment of staffers.

Zaslav Stays Out of the Spotlight

The Warner Bros. Discovery upfront featured only execs taking the stage — except for one very key exec: CEO David Zaslav. While all of Zaslav’s chief lieutenants got up to speak about their brands and functions, and he was confirmed to be in the room, Zaslav did not address the crowd himself.

As CEO of a top Hollywood company, Zaslav — who did spend time on stage during WBD’s 2022 upfront — has been called out by name on WGA picket signs alongside the likes of Disney’s Bob Iger and Netflix’s Ted Sarandos amid the ongoing strike.

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