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Warner Bros. Discovery has a huge reality TV portfolio but insiders predict staff cuts and 'intense pressure' to trim unscripted budgets at HBO and HBO Max

Elaine Low   

Warner Bros. Discovery has a huge reality TV portfolio but insiders predict staff cuts and 'intense pressure' to trim unscripted budgets at HBO and HBO Max
  • Now that Discovery has acquired WarnerMedia, insiders wonder how the reality TV business will be impacted.
  • Reality TV giant Discovery is known for being cost-conscious, a contrast to HBO's big budgets.

The marriage of WarnerMedia and Discovery, now entering its second month, seems like an easy union of content. The former is known for scripted film and television powerhouses Warner Bros. and HBO, while the latter is a reality TV titan with a robust web of unscripted cable networks that include Food Network, HGTV, and TLC.

But the two entertainment companies have vastly different content strategies, and as the ax has started to fall on beloved execs and teams on the Warners side, several reality TV producers and agents who spoke with Insider expressed worry about how Discovery's penny-pinching philosophy may impact those who work on the highly regarded documentary, sports, and reality TV teams at HBO and HBO Max.

Chief executive David Zaslav, who is leading the combined Warner Bros. Discovery, is generally hailed as a savvy, hands-on leader and a welcome change from the telecom execs at former WarnerMedia parent AT&T. But already corporate synergies have begun, leading to ousted high-profile executives and, according to a report in Variety, the dissolution of scripted programming development at Turner networks TNT and TBS.

"It's a little mixed emotions," said one TV agent of news headlines celebrating Zaslav's embrace of Hollywood. "We know what he's been doing [at Discovery] and it hasn't been the best for our unscripted community."

Discovery has widely been known as 'frugal, and it never changes'

Many in that unscripted community point to the Discovery financing kerfuffle from several years ago, when the company mandated that production partners cover their own show expenses up front — which can run into the millions per season — and arranged for Citibank to offer loans to producers who could not afford to do so.

Under that model, Discovery would repay a production company once a show was delivered, so that "money didn't leave Discovery's books until the last possible moment," said a second agent. The system put a strain on independent producers.

The idea was said to be the brainchild of then-Discovery CFO Gunnar Wiedenfels, who is now WBD's head of finance.

"That was Gunnar's signature move," said one prolific unscripted producer, who has made several shows for Discovery. "That frees up cash for them. It helps their books look better as a public company."

After industry pushback, insiders say, that move was no longer Discovery's prevalent financing model ahead of its acquisition of WarnerMedia. But even before Wiedenfels, Discovery had a long history of strict budgeting.

"I've always known them to be frugal, and it never changes," said the producer.

Discovery series typically cost around $300,000 to $450,000 per hour (that's more like 42 minutes on linear TV), said the first agent. For comparison, production price tags on an original docuseries or reality show for HBO Max or HBO were said to easily run three times as high.

Top shows in Discovery's vast reality portfolio include Food Network hits "Chopped" and "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives," TLC juggernaut "90 Day Fiancé," and Discovery Channel's "Deadliest Catch." Unscripted standouts from the WarnerMedia teams have included HBO Max's ballroom competition show "Legendary" and HBO documentary "Leaving Neverland."

Early COVID-era productions — which often relied on talent filming on iPhones from home — prompted Discovery to see if it could trim the fat even further, according to a 2020 Wall Street Journal report.

Expecting more leadership shifts and shakeouts

Industry stakeholders who spoke to Insider do not immediately expect Zaslav to trim budgets at premium cable giant HBO, run by respected exec Casey Bloys. But reality TV is Discovery's bread and butter, leading some to wonder if former WarnerMedia staffers and platforms will have to yield to Discovery's longtime practices in the unscripted arena.

Kathleen Finch, who previously oversaw all of Discovery's lifestyle networks, now has a purview of more than 40 US networks at WBD.

The second TV agent, who called the Discovery model "Budget first, then everything else," projects "intense pressure to bring budgets down" at WBD.

Insiders also expressed concern about the fate of WarnerMedia's reality TV and documentary executives, singing the praises of HBO doc heads Nancy Abraham and Lisa Heller, HBO Max executive vp of non-fiction and live-action family Jen O'Connell and, on the studio side, Warner Bros. unscripted TV president Mike Darnell — who produces shows both for in-house platforms and for buyers across town, including NBC ("The Voice") and ABC ("The Bachelor").

Whether Darnell in particular will be encouraged to fit into the Discovery mold — and reduce costs for programming produced for WBD platforms and networks — remains to be seen. Affectionately called an "evil genius," a "chameleon," and "truly one of the respected entities that sells outside of the group" by those who spoke to Insider, the reality TV powerhouse and former Fox exec is known for his involvement over the years in mega-hits such as "American Idol" and "Ellen's Game of Games."

"He's got hair like Howard Stern, he wears lizard cowboy boots, he shows up two hours late for meetings, rambles endlessly about God knows what," said the producer. "He's just totally eccentric, and within that eccentricity, can be brilliant — and has been a part of some of the best shows of the genre."

For now, industry players who spoke to Insider are waiting for the other shoe to drop as more layoffs are widely expected at WBC in the coming months.

"It's hard to pitch a show if you don't feel like that exec team is going to be there in three weeks," said the second agent.

Having a reality-savvy exec like Zaslav running a company as big as WBD could be a boon for unscripted programming there.

"We're rooting for these people in unscripted — we're hoping for the best," said the first agent, adding of the Discovery leadership now driving strategy at WBD, "but we've seen time and time again what they've done."


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