The management team of Warner Bros. Discovery is outraged by diversity
Lawmakers and advocacy groups say the personnel changes have heightened concerns that Discovery is bringing in its poor diversity record since its merger with WarnerMedia in April. Late last year, a group of U.S. lawmakers, including Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren and Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairman Joaquin Castro, sent a letter to the Justice Department raising concerns about the merger, including disclaimers regarding corporate and on-screen representation. According to its public filings, people of color made up just 30% of Discovery’s pre-merger workforce, 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 aspect of their business – on screen, behind the camera, executives, etc.,” Castro said.
WarnerMedia, on the other hand, had implemented “innovative ways to help diversify the business,” Castro said. There, Chief Inclusion Officer Christy Haubegger had assembled a team of more than 50 people who launched a multitude of initiatives; people of color held 41% of jobs last year. Castro said he feared that under Discovery “those efforts will fade away.”
The team was left without direction for months after Haubegger announced his departure as the merger was being finalized. Thursday, Warner Bros. Discovery fulfilled this role by appointing Asif Sadiq as Global Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Sadiq notably came from WarnerMedia, not Discovery, where he worked on its diversity and inclusion efforts.
In recent months, a coalition of about half a dozen groups, including the National Urban League and the League of United Latin American Citizens, met with Zaslav’s team in hopes of convincing Warner Bros. Discovery to publicly commit to diversifying its workforce. The company has yet to agree to do so, and the group sees Zaslav’s new hires as red flags.
“When the board announcement was made, LULAC was deeply disappointed that there were no Latinos represented,” said Sindy Benavides, LULAC’s chief executive. The board has three women and five people of color due to the choices of AT&T, owner of WarnerMedia, although none are Hispanic or Latino.
A spokesperson for Warner Bros. Discovery 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, although executives close to Zaslav dismissed claims that his behavior fit into any kind of pattern. (No one accused Warner Bros. Discovery of malice or overt discrimination.) They also asked for patience. Within months, Zaslav grew from a company of a few thousand employees to a company of tens of thousands.
Bloomberg News, which competes with Warner Bros.’ CNN unit. Discovery in the provision of news and information, has initiatives to improve representation in terms of gender, ethnicity and race at all levels of the newsroom. Every major media company has struggled to hire workers that are more representative of the country and tell a wider range of stories.
Strengthening the representation of minorities and women is a business imperative for the entertainment industry. Hits such as ‘Black Panther’, ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ and the films of Jordan Peele have time and again proven that there is big money to be made putting women and minorities on all sides of the camera. One of WarnerMedia’s most popular original films on HBO Max this year was a remake of “Father of the Bride” that featured a Latino family at the center.
Yet Hollywood is still missing out on $10 billion in sales each year by not hiring more black talent and telling more black-led stories, according to a 2021 report from consulting firm McKinsey & Co. And while Hispanics and Latinos go to the movies at the highest rate of any race and ethnicity in the United States, they made up just 5.9% of all characters in the 100 greatest films of 2019 – far less than their share of the general population.
“They leave a lot of money on the table,” Castro said.
Zaslav is no stranger to the profit-making advantage of reaching new and different audiences. In 2008, he teamed up with media mogul Oprah Winfrey to launch her eponymous television network, one of the most popular among black viewers. Warner Bros. Discovery is now the majority owner of the property, and Zaslav brought Winfrey into the office to interview her in front of employees in April.
Yet when it comes to hiring, Zaslav has a long history of bringing in people he has deep connections to — a practice notorious for thwarting diversity efforts. Research has found that people tend to network with those who come from similar backgrounds and are like them.
When CNN executive Jeff Zucker quit earlier this year, Zaslav hired his friend, award-winning television producer Chris Licht, to replace him. He also hired Discovery veteran Luis Silberwasser to oversee sports, which also fell under Zucker’s purview; Silberwasser is the only Latino person who reports directly to Zaslav.
Research has found that newly merged companies tend to lay off a disproportionate percentage of women and people of color. Zaslav’s story at Discovery also made Castro and his peers nervous. People of color made up 20% of Discovery’s top management, according to its public filings, worse than any major media company; Latinos held only 5% of the top positions.
Since sending their letter last year, the coalition of organizations representing underrepresented employees has met with Warner Bros. Discovery several times this year.
They pressure Warner Bros. Discovery to sign a memorandum of understanding, a public commitment to take certain steps to diversify its workforce. Although it is not a binding contract, its public nature helps hold companies to account. Comcast agreed to a memorandum when acquiring NBCUniversal, as did T-Mobile and Sprint after their merger.
The company has not decided whether it will sign the memorandum, according to two people familiar with the company’s thinking.
“We’re watching closely to see what Warner Bros. Discovery does in the coming months,” Benavides said. “They could tell us a fairy tale. But if that doesn’t translate into action… that’s what we’re watching more closely.