WarnerMedia’s top executive charts his exit

Jason Kilar was tapped to oversee AT&T's streaming strategy from launch to international rollout. After one year on the job, he's looking to move on.
AT&T Chief Executive Officer Jason Kilar is pictured in an undated photograph supplied by the company. (Photo: AT&T/Handout, Graphic: The Desk)

One year ago, AT&T hired former Hulu executive Jason Kilar to do all the things he was not able to do during his time with his previous employer.

His tasks were numerous, yet seemed simple at the same time: Create a new, blockbuster streaming service that brings together all the elements of the Warner Bros. film and television library, the linear channels of Turner Broadcasting and acquire new programs from third parties. Launch the service in the United States, then roll it out around the world.

Unrestrained from a board of media executives — during his time at Hulu, the company was owned by three of the country’s top broadcasters through an unusual consortium — Kilar had unfettered access to AT&T’s resources and money to build out his vision of a blockbuster domestic service. He had always wanted to take Hulu global. Here was his chance with HBO Max.

After a few stumbles, HBO Max is on track to become one of the best streaming services in the United States: More than 30 million traditional HBO subscribers have access to the streaming service, and millions more pay AT&T for streaming-only access to HBO Max. It costs just $15 a month, and it recently began offering full-length feature films the same day those movies are offered in traditional theaters — a temporary strategy to offset the economic effects of the coronavirus, but one that drew a sizable interest in the streamer and helped retain customers.

If Kilar had a moment to celebrate his small victories, it was definitely shortened by the news this week that AT&T would soon sever ties with its WarnerMedia content division — the subsidiary he leads — and spin it off into a new company. If all goes according to plan, by next year, the new company will be fused together with Discovery Communications.

Kilar will not lead the yet-to-be-named new company. That responsibility will fall to David Zaslav, the current chief executive of Discovery. The decision relegates Kilar’s accomplishments to a mere footnote in the five-year history of WarnerMedia’s largely tumultuous ownership by AT&T, one that brought the phone company a significant amount of self-inflicted debt to the point where it was forced to piecemeal the company formerly known as Time Warner and other properties for a fraction of its acquisition costs.

Kilar, who was not told about the proposed merger until just before word of the plan was leaked by Bloomberg, now faces an uncertain future in whatever WarnerMedia and Discovery become. Speaking on a conference call with reporters, Zaslav referred to Kilar as “a fantastic talent,” but declined to specify if the executive would be offered a role within the new company.

He is apparently wasting no time waiting around for executives to approach him with an offer: According to the New York Times, Kilar has hired a legal team to negotiate his exit from AT&T before the merger is finalized.

His future may eventually rest with another blockbuster media deal that could be announced in the coming weeks: On Monday, reports surfaced that Amazon has been in discussions to acquire MGM Studios. Like WarnerMedia, MGM has a large library of film and television content that is looking for a permanent home after bouncing around from streaming service to streaming service. And like WarnerMedia, MGM programs a premium cable network, Epix, that has struggled to make significant headway in the era of direct-to-consumer streaming services.

According to one report, Amazon executives approached Kilar with an offer to lead its Prime Video efforts sometime last year, but Kilar turned down the offer in favor of the role at AT&T. Amazon eventually hired away an executive from Sony to lead the tech giant’s media division.

But Amazon has grown since that offer was extended — the streamer successfully negotiated broadcast rights to future telecasts of the National Football League’s Thursday night games, and recently integrated the content libraries of Paramount Plus and Discovery Plus into its Prime Video Channels subscription service.

An acquisition of MGM Studios would bring plenty of other opportunities for managerial responsibilities, and it is possible — likely, even — that Kilar could find himself with another offer to join Amazon in an executive-level position.

Other companies could easily court Kilar for their own streaming ambitious.

California-based Roku, which made a name for itself with its easy-to-use streaming hardware, has in recent years shifted its focus toward building out its advertisement business through the licensing of third-party content. More recently, it acquired “original” shows from defunct streaming service Quibi, and affirmed a commitment to produce its own.

Likewise, the ad-supported streaming service Tubi has focused on offering free access to licensed television shows and movies while generating revenue from short advertisement interruptions. Tubi has gained significant momentum since it was acquired by Fox Corporation last year, with the broadcaster infusing cash and content into the streamer and recently pledging its own commitment to produce original content.

With HBO Max, Kilar was able to generate a level of anticipation and excitement that have, so far, not been matched Roku and Tubi. That anticipated generated a significant “fear of missing out” symptom among potential streamers when HBO Max wasn’t immediately available on Roku and Amazon due to contractual disputes; as things stand now, if the Roku Channel or Tubi suddenly disappeared tomorrow, few streamers would miss them.

Either company could approach Kilar with an offer to help them take their streaming services to the next level in a way that thrills and delights users as HBO Max did. For the moment, he’s stuck at a company that will soon be out of his control, watching whatever strategy he envisioned dissolve before his eyes.

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