Warner Bros. Discovery Inc. (NASDAQ: WBD) stock has fallen 24% in the past three months. The move has tarnished the reputation of CEO David Zaslav, who was once considered the media industry’s best chief executive officer. His attempt to improve the performance of the debt-burdened company has been undercut by problems at CNN and worry that the new streaming service Max has too much competition to be successful. (Zaslav is among executives paid more than $150 million a year.)
While the worries about Max are about its future, the CNN problem is in the present. It posted deteriorating ratings and a drop in profitability to $750 million last year, compared to a string of years in which it made over $1 billion. CNN CEO’s efforts to improve the network have been criticized as digging a hole compared to rivals MSNBC and Fox News. It would require a second revamping of talent and shows to improve that. The risks are significant.
Max is a mashup of much of the programming of HBO+ and Discovery+. The new service has to contend with Amazon Prime Video and Netflix, which are the industry leaders. The second tier by subscriber count includes Hulu, Disney+, Apple TV+ and Peacock. J.D. Powers said the total subscriber numbers across all streaming services may have peaked. And all services suffer from churn as people add and drop them. What Warner Bros. Discovery calls its Direct-to-Consumer segment is barely profitable.
Warner Bros. Discovery’s pressing problem is a debt load CNBC has put at about $50 billion. The company’s financial performance could turn this from a burden to an existential threat. A company Zaslav put together might need to be dismantled to restructure its balance sheet.
Warner Bros. Discovery’s market cap is only $28 billion. Rival Disney’s market cap is $166 billion. That, by itself, tells what Wall Street thinks of Zaslav’s prospects.
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