WarnerMedia Gets Hulu’d

This week saw a rare smart move by AT&T with the hiring of Jason Kilar to head up WarnerMedia.

It was smart not only because Kilar is a capable executive but because he seems to thrive in thankless jobs.

I first met Kilar when he was with Amazon, running its VHS and DVD business. When he was later picked to be head up the nascent Hulu I went on record to declare the job un-doable. But Kilar proved me wrong.

Not only did Hulu turn out to be a well-designed and well-constructed service, but Kilar managed to successfully navigate around an ungainly board of directors that included representatives from the three competing major studios that owned the joint venture at the time: Universal, Disney and Fox.

There were constant frictions over the strategic direction for the company, with Kilar wanting to chase the streaming future while its studio owners were really trying to hold back the streaming tide to protect their then still-lucrative DVD business.

The creation of Hulu, in fact, was driven in no small measure by the studios’ frustration with YouTube over the explosion of TV and movie content being uploaded to the platform. Before being christened Hulu, it was known jokingly in the industry as “Screw Tube,” “Me-too Tube” and “Fuck you Tube,” among other sobriquets.

Kilar also had to manage a persistent channel conflict between Hulu’s internal advertising sales team and those of the networks’ whose programming it was streaming, who shared sales duties (and sometimes clients).

He’s likely to find much that is familiar at WarnerMedia.

Though his hiring is a signal that AT&T is serious about WarnerMedia’s digital future, where Kilar had tried to steer Hulu, he will again be riding herd over multiple and not-always harmonious power centers, including Warner Bros. studio, under Ann Sarnoff, WarnerMedia Entertainment, under Robert Greenblatt, and WarnerMedia News and Sports under Jeff Zucker, all of whom have far more experience than Kilar in movie and TV production and distribution.

As I’ve written here before, AT&T/WarnerMedia is also an awkward amalgam of content and pipes, an arrangement that, for all the hype about “synergy” and scale, has historically destroyed more value than it has created.

Kilar has also been charged with launching AT&T’s big digital play HBO Max, on which it’s betting much of the company’s future, into the teeth of a catastrophic public health emergency and perhaps the steepest economic downturn since the Great Depression.

Meanwhile, his new parent company’s shares are getting downgraded, its balance sheet is heavily leveraged, and its pay-TV business is bleeding out.

Welcome to Hollywood, Mr. Kilar.