Starz Hires Ex-WarnerMedia Executive Sofia Chang as Chief Distribution Officer

Longtime entertainment executive Sofia Chang has been hired as EVP and chief distribution officer at Starz. Based in New York and reporting to Alison Hoffman, president of domestic networks, Chang will oversee all of the streaming platform’s sales activities with multichannel video and digital distributors in the United States.

Sofia Chang

Chang brings 20 years of industry and leadership experience from her role as president of distribution at WarnerMedia, where she led distribution revenue for all HBO-branded digital and linear channels and navigated its subscriber and revenue growth, increased market share and improved profit margin. During her tenure at HBO, Chang was also responsible for overseeing content distribution and revenue in other formats.

“Sofia is a well-respected entertainment executive who brings a wealth of experience, along with a successful track record of driving growth in both the linear and digital space,” Hoffman said in a statement.

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Most recently, Chang served as the national CEO at Girl Scouts of the USA, where she led the enterprise across all functions including operations, technology, licensing and more. She was instrumental in reversing membership decline, reduced debt and developed a cultural framework founded on inclusivity.

Chang was one of Media Play News‘ top “captains” in the publication’s 2018 Women in Home Entertainment issue, when she was EVP, worldwide digital distribution and home entertainment, at HBO. In that capacity, she oversaw HBO’s transactional physical and digital business worldwide, as well as distribution of its domestic subscription product across digital platforms such as Amazon, Apple, Google, Hulu, Roku, Sony and more.

Chang was recently honored by Forbes’ “50 Over 50: Impact” and the Goldhouse “A100” for her positive impact on cultural and social change. She is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts. She is also fluent in Mandarin Chinese.

Warner Bros. Discovery Names Asif Sadiq Chief Global Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer

Warner Bros. Discovery has appointed Asif Sadiq to the position of chief global diversity, equity and inclusion officer. Sadiq will lead the media company’s diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) strategy and global team, expanding on initiatives from both legacy Discovery and legacy WarnerMedia.

Sadiq reports to CEO David Zaslav and Adria Alpert Romm, chief people and culture officer.

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Sadiq most recently served as the head of diversity, equity and inclusion, international for WarnerMedia, and was a key architect of many of the company’s internal and content-focused initiatives on which WBD plans to build. Earlier, Sadiq held senior diversity positions at adidas, The Telegraph Media Group, EY Financial Services and the City of London Police.

In his role, Sadiq will chair WBD’s new business diversity council, a senior advisory board comprised of global leaders from the company’s sports, games, technology, revenue, and corporate groups. The council will assist in developing and instituting enterprise-wide diversity programs for employees across businesses.

“We want our employees to be able to thrive as their authentic selves, while using the power of storytelling to not only entertain audiences around the world, but also open minds and inspire action,” Zaslav said in a statement. “And I can think of no better leader than Asif to ensure that we champion the most thoughtful and impactful diversity, equity and inclusion program.”

In addition, WBD is establishing a creative diversity council, which includes Channing Dungey, chairman of Warner Bros. Television Group; Pamela Abdy, chairperson and CEO of Warner Bros. Film Group; Mike DeLuca, chairperson and CEO of Warner Bros. Film Group; Casey Bloys, chairman and CEO, HBO and HBO Max Content; and Kathleen Finch, chairman and chief content officer for U.S. Networks Group. Together these senior creative leaders will help ensure that DE&I is woven into the development, production and distribution process.

Sadiq is a member of the board of The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, Middlesex University, WORK180 and Hedley May. In addition, he is a chartered companion of the Chartered Management Institute and an executive member of World 50. Sadiq has been recognized as one of the most influential global D&I Leaders by Hive Learning and listed on People Management’s D&I Power List. He has won numerous awards and has been honored for his work with an MBE by the Queen.

Discovery, WarnerMedia Complete $43 Billion Merger

Discovery and WarnerMedia April 8 announced the completion of their $43 billion merger, a union that creates a streaming-focused media giant that brings together a leading Hollywood movie studio (Warner Bros. Pictures) with a top producer of documentary and other non-fiction programming.

Warner Bros. Discovery, as the new company is known, will be headed by Discovery CEO David Zaslov and other Discovery executives. It begins trading on the Nasdaq with the start of trading on April 11, under the new ticker symbol “WBD.”

The new company combines WarnerMedia’s premium entertainment, sports and news assets with Discovery’s leading non-fiction and international entertainment and sports businesses, including Discovery Channel, Discovery+, Warner Bros. Entertainment, CNN, CNN+, DC, Eurosport, HBO, HBO Max, HGTV, Food Network, Investigation Discovery, TLC, TNT, TBS, truTV, Travel Channel, MotorTrend, Animal Planet, Science Channel, New Line Cinema, Cartoon Network, Adult Swim, Turner Classic Movies and others.

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“With our collective assets and diversified business model, Warner Bros. Discovery offers the most differentiated and complete portfolio of content across film, television and streaming,” Zaslav said in a statement. “We are confident that we can bring more choice to consumers around the globe while fostering creativity and creating value for shareholders. I can’t wait for both teams to come together to make Warner Bros. Discovery the best place for impactful storytelling.”

AT&T CEO John Stankey said the sale for operational control of the former WarnerMedia company would help the telecom giant reduce its debt and enable it to focus on wireless technology, including 5G. AT&T retains majority ownership in the new company.

“We are at the dawn of a new era in connectivity,” Stankey said.

Under the agreement, which was structured as a Reverse Morris Trust transaction, at close AT&T received $40.4 billion in cash and WarnerMedia’s retention of certain debt. Additionally, shareholders of AT&T received 0.241917 shares of WBD for each share of AT&T common stock they held at close. As a result, AT&T shareholders received 1.7 billion shares of WBD, representing 71% of WBD shares on a fully diluted basis. Discovery’s existing shareholders own the remainder of the new company. In addition to their new shares of WBD common stock, AT&T shareholders continue to hold the same number of shares of AT&T common stock they held immediately prior to close.

Jason Kilar Exits CEO Position at WarnerMedia

Ahead of the official completion of Discovery’s acquisition of WarnerMedia from AT&T and launch of Warner Bros. Discovery on April 11, CEO Jason Kilar has announced his departure — about two years after joining the company. The former Hulu CEO made the announcement April 5 in a memo to WarnerMedia staff. Discovery CEO David Zaslav is expected assume operational control of the new company.

“With the pending transaction with Discovery nearing close, now is the right time to share with each of you that I will be departing this amazing company,” Kilar wrote.

A true believer in digital distribution across alternative channels, Kilar, as CEO of WarnerMedia, streamlined company operations, most notably at Warner Bros., and pushed forward with the controversial decision to release Warner’s entire 2021 theatrical slate concurrently on HBO Max — a strategy that began with Wonder Woman 1984 on Dec. 25, 2020.

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While the strategy jumpstarted HBO Max subscriptions and initially appeared not to negatively impact pandemic-era box office revenue, as 2021 rolled on and theaters expanded seating capacity, Warner titles suffered selling tickets.

The decision — driven by shuttered theaters during the pandemic — upended Hollywood’s traditional theatrical window distribution, catching many studio executives and producers — whose compensation was based on theatrical — off guard. Kilar later apologized for not better communicating the strategy to all parties involved.

In his staff memo, Kilar conveyed his love for “this team, this company, and this mission” at WarnerMedia.

“I’ve never been more fulfilled professionally. I’ve never been happier professionally. This team — and what we’ve built together — are the reasons for that.”

Kilar told the staff it had help elevate technology, product, and design to the highest levels at WarnerMedia.

“It has been deeply gratifying to lean into the future alongside each of you and to do so with conviction,” he wrote. “Leading this team has been the honor of my lifetime. My heart is so full, and I am beyond thankful to each of you. There is no better team on the planet, and I will savor every last step as I wander the lot in Burbank several more times this week, with this team on my mind, always.”

Discovery CFO: Streaming Services HBO Max, Discovery+ Will Be Combined

Subscription streaming video platforms HBO Max and Discovery+ will be combined following the official consummation of Discovery’s $43 billion minority stake, majority control deal for WarnerMedia with current parent AT&T, Discovery CFO Gunnar Wiedenfels told an investor group.

Speaking March 14 at the Deutsche Bank 30th Annual Media, Internet & Telecom Conference, Wiedenfels appeared to answer the long-running question about how Discovery would accommodate the two streaming services under the new Warner Bros. Discovery media company moniker.

Discovery CFO Gunnar Wiedenfels

With the merger set to be completed in the second quarter of this year, Wiedenfels said the goal was to meld the two platforms with a combined paid subscriber base of around 100 million into one service. In the meantime, the services would likely be bundled as management figures out the best way to make the combination happen.

“One of the most important items here is that we believe in a combined product as opposed to a bundle,” Wiedenfels said. “The question is, in order to get to that point and do it in a way that’s actually a great user experience for our subscribers, that’s going to take some time. Again, that’s nothing that’s going to happen in weeks — hopefully not in years, but in several months — and we will start working on an interim solution in the meantime.”

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Wiedenfels, who will transition to CFO of the new company, joins Discovery CEO David Zaslav, who will oversee Warner Bros. Discovery operations. Current WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar is expected to transition out of the company.

Wiedenfels contends Discovery+, which costs $4.99 per month with ads, $6.99 without ads, and HBO Max, which cost $9.99 with ads, $14.99 without ads, would initially offer a single sign-in for subscribers with each service offering select content on the other’s platform. He did not disclose any new pricing for the combined services.

“In order to get to that point and do it in a way that’s actually a great user experience for our subscribers, that’s going to take some time,” Wiedenfels said. “Building one very, very strong combined direct-to-consumer product and platform, that’s going to take a while.”

Discovery Shareholders Approve WarnerMedia Acquisition

Discovery March 11 announced that its shareholders have approved various matters relating to its $43 billion acquisition of WarnerMedia from AT&T to create the new media company Warner Bros. Discovery. The transaction affords Discovery minority ownership and majority control of WarnerMedia assets, which include Warner Bros. Pictures, Turner and HBO, including subscription streaming service HBO Max.

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At the special meeting of Discovery shareholder held earlier today (March 11), based on estimated preliminary voting results, stockholders voted to approve the charter amendment proposals, share issuance proposal and the advisory (non-binding) compensation proposal. The approvals mark the completion of one of the few remaining closing conditions for the merger.  These preliminary voting results will be updated through a regulatory filing to reflect the final certification of results from Discovery’s Inspector of Election.

The acquisition is expected to close early in the second quarter of 2022, subject to other customary closing conditions. The boards of directors of both AT&T and Discovery have now approved the transaction.

CNN Launching Branded SVOD Platform ‘CNN+’ March 29

CNN is finally entering the direct-to-consumer business.

The WarnerMedia news unit March 11 announced that its branded foray into subscription streaming video will debut on March 29 in the United States. CNN+ will be available at $5.99 monthly or $59.99 per year. Consumers that sign up within the first four weeks after March 29 directly with CNN+ will have access 50% off the monthly plan for life as long as they remain subscribers.

“March 29 will be an important day in the history of CNN and CNN+ will be a critical part of our future,” Andrew Morse, EVP, Chief Digital Officer and Head of CNN+, said in a statement. “I am so proud of the work our teams have done to ensure our world class journalism and storytelling comes to life on this new platform.”

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First announced last July, CNN+ aims to offer subscribers live, on-demand and interactive programming, including an interactive channel to engage with CNN’s journalism and storytelling.

“We’re excited for everyone to experience CNN+ and see what we’ve been working on,” said Alex MacCallum, CNN Worldwide Head of Product and General Manager for CNN+. “We have a really compelling content offering with CNN’s world class journalists and are confident in the product offered at this compelling price.”

CNN will have a single CNN app that will offer access to both CNN+ and TVE experiences, with navigation between the two. In the single CNN app, CNN+ users can explore a range of editorially-curated and personalized experiences that suit their interests. Pay-TV customers will still have the  “TV Everywhere” experience, including access to CNN’s linear TV feeds of CNN, CNN International and HLN as well as a substantial on-demand offering, which will be available exclusively to pay-TV subs.

WarnerMedia, Discovery Cease All Business Operations in Russia

Warner Bros. Pictures nixing distribution of The Batman in Russia was just the tip of the iceberg. Parent WarnerMedia is reportedly shuttering all business operations in the country (effective today, March 9) in response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ongoing military invasion into neighboring Ukraine.

“Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, WarnerMedia is pausing all new business in Russia,” CEO Jason Kilar wrote in a staff memo. “This includes ceasing broadcast of our channels, halting all new content licensing with Russian entities and pausing our planned theatrical and games releases.”

Separately, Discovery, which is acquiring operational control of WarnerMedia, halted operations of 15 broadcast channels it owns and operates through a joint venture with Russia’s National Media Group.

In addition to joining the global outrage to Putin’s unprovoked military aggression, Discovery and WarnerMedia have joined a growing group of Western media that has ceased operations in Russia due to new government-mandated press restrictions.

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On March 4, Russia’s parliament unanimously voted to punish media organizations reporting news not approved by the Kremlin. Dissemination of so-called “fake news” could be met with a sentence up to 15 years in jail. The new law is aimed at halting news critical of the Ukraine invasion. Putin has called his invasion a “special military operation,” and Russian occupying troops “peacekeepers.”

The censorship law, which is on top of government rules mandating Western media distributors carry 20 Russian government channels, prompted Netflix last week to halt operations in the country.

Disney, Warner Bros., Sony Pictures Halt Theatrical Releases in Russia Due to Ukraine Invasion

With the Russian army’s unprovoked military invasion into democratically controlled Ukraine intensifying, The Walt Disney Co., Warner Bros. and Sony Pictures reportedly plan to halt releasing new theatrical releases in Russia going forward. The decision impacts the pending Pixar Animation release Turning Red, which is set to bow on the Disney+ streaming platform in the U.S., but in theaters in regions like Russia that does not yet have the SVOD service.

The studios’ Feb. 28 action follows economic sanctions imposed by Western countries, companies and the European Union in response to the escalating global crisis after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered troops into neighboring Ukraine.

“Given the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and the tragic humanitarian crisis, we are pausing the release of theatrical films in Russia,” Disney said in a media statement.

The company said that future business decisions would be based on the evolving situation. In the meantime, Disney said that given the scale of the emerging refugee crisis, it is working with non-government partners to provide aid and other humanitarian assistance to refugees.

Separately, Warner Bros. Pictures’ parent company WarnerMedia said it would halt releasing this weekend’s The Batman in Russian theaters.

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“In light of the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, WarnerMedia is pausing the release of its feature film The Batman in Russia,” the company said in a statement. “We will continue to monitor the situation as it evolves. We hope for a swift and peaceful resolution to this tragedy.”

Sony Pictures joined the growing Hollywood bandwagon announcing that pending release Morbius would not be released in Russian theaters. The decision has impact considering that the studio’s previous release, Spider-Man: No Way Home, generated a reported $45 million at the Russian box office.

“Given the ongoing military action in Ukraine and the resulting uncertainty and humanitarian crisis unfolding in that region, we will be pausing our planned theatrical releases in Russia,” Sony said in a media statement. “Our thoughts and prayers are with all those who have been impacted and hope this crisis will be resolved quickly.”

Over the weekend, Google-owned YouTube and Facebook announced they would block Russian state media outlet RT and other pro-Russian channels from their platforms. Netflix said it would skip streaming 20 free-to-air channels despite Russian regulator Roskomnadzor mandating that any foreign service with more than 100,000 subscribers do so.

“Given the current situation, we have no plans to add these channels to our service,” Netflix said in a statement.

Discovery CEO: ‘Warner Bros. Discovery’ Won’t Outspend the Competition

With regulatory approval of Discovery’s $43 billion minority stake/operational control of WarnerMedia from AT&T expected to close in the second quarter, Discovery CEO David Zaslav said the new Warner Bros. Discovery media company would not engage in a content spending war with industry heavyweights such as Netflix, Disney+ and HBO Max.

The corporate combination of WarnerMedia and Discovery includes consolidating disparate streaming services HBO Max, Discovery+ and overseas.

“Our goal is to compete with the leading streaming services, not to win the spending war,” Zaslav said on the Feb. 24 investor call. The executive said he has no idea what additional content costs may be required going forward but added that throwing out a big number like $5 billion increase doesn’t make sense either.

“If you say we do 600 hours on Food Network and [subscribers] like it and we make $400 million, for example, if we did another 400 hours of content, maybe audiences would be a little happier, but we would make no money,” Zaslav said.

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German CFO Gunnar Wiedenfels said Discovery spent about $4 billion on original content in 2021. HBO Max spent upwards of $2 billion on original content, which pales compared with competitors such as Netflix at more than $12 billion, and Disney+ at north of $8 billion.

“It’s not about winning the spending war,” Wiedenfels said, adding in soccer parlance that, “money doesn’t score goals.”

CEO Zaslav contends the right amount of content spending is required to “nourish” the audience, so they spend their streaming time on Max and/or Discovery+.

“The key to these platforms … [is] that [consumers] feel that you’re the place that they want to be and you’re important,” he said.