Laid-Off HBO Max Execs Reveal Warner Bros. Discovery Is Killing Off Diversity and Courting ‘Middle America’
Warner Bros. Discovery has axed about 13 non-white executives as it tries to climb out of debt. It will likely affect the shows and movies that are made.
Former HBO Max executives say the streaming service has been left with few people of color to oversee its diverse slate of programming as Warner Bros. Discovery continues its ongoing corporate reshuffling.
The platform reportedly laid off close to 70 people this month. That includes the entire teams overseeing unscripted, kids and family, and international content, according to two former HBO Max execs who asked not to be named.
Those three divisions, responsible for buying shows from production companies and creators and working closely with them during production, are now completely gone.
One former employee says as many as 13 people of color previously in charge of developing shows like The Gordita Chronicles and the Spanish-language docuseries Menudo: Forever Young have been let go, likely influencing the types of shows and movies that are greenlit moving forward. Among those laid off are Jen Kim, an Asian woman who served as the senior vice president of the international team, and Kaela Barnes, a Black woman who worked under Kim.
“I don’t think anyone knows just how white the staff is,” one former executive told The Daily Beast.
Former HBO Max staffers say there are barely any non-white people left in the upper ranks of content, with one naming Joey Chavez, an executive vice president of drama, as one of the few people of color still there. Because HBO Max and the original HBO channel operate somewhat independently, one former executive conceded that “there may be one Black woman on the HBO side. Maybe.”
The layoffs have “amplified the lack of diversity at HBO,” another former executive told The Daily Beast. “HBO is the most homogenous part of this umbrella. Instead of trying to figure out how to integrate some of the [Max] executives into HBO, they just made this sweeping cut of three divisions: kids, family, and international. A lot of Black and brown people lost their jobs.”
Ever since parent company Warner Bros. merged with Discovery earlier this year, employees at Warner have grappled with the changing values of the newly created company. Discovery CEO David Zaslav was charged with helping Warner crawl out of a $50 billion hole. He came in like a wrecking ball, tearing up CNN’s $300 million streaming service CNN+ and vowing to pull the Warner-owned news channel away from “advocacy” journalism.
More changes have come in the past couple of weeks.
Earlier this month, it was announced that Batgirl, the $90 million film planned for HBO Max starring Afro-Latina actress Leslie Grace, would be shelved completely in favor of a tax write-off. Over the weekend, CNN media correspondent and host Brian Stelter, a frequent target of right-wing criticism, was fired from the network.
Former Warner employees believe these changes are just as much about business as they are about reshaping the ideological perception of Warner properties. It all points to the same end, they say: A rejection of left-wing or highly diverse content in favor of more homogenous, Middle America-friendly fare. The lack of diversity in content staff might just make that goal easier.
In a statement to The Daily Beast, HBO highlighted shows like Euphoria, Rap Sh!t, A Black Lady Sketch Show and Los Espookys, all of which are led by diverse characters.
“HBO and HBO Max have always shown a commitment to diverse programming and storytellers, and always will,” the company said.
An internal graphic comparing the audiences of Discovery+ and HBO Max showed a stark demographic difference between the two streamers. Where HBO Max is popular with diverse groups, single people, and drivers of hybrid cars, Discovery+ is popular with white, married people who drive SUVs, minivans, and “traveling buses.” HBO Max viewers are on TikTok and Instagram, while Discovery+ viewers use social media platforms Facebook and Twitter, with the added caveat, “if any.” HBO Max viewers have no kids. Discovery+ viewers are either “empty nesters” or have grandchildren. Discovery may be trying to pull HBO into its orbit as it focuses on what it does best.
HBO Max’s reality offerings presented an obvious sticking point for the new bosses. Where Discovery properties like TLC and HGTV send camera crews out to film what they can find, HBO Max’s offerings are more carefully crafted. They’re sometimes buoyed by stars like Selena Gomez or Steph Curry, who have the power to command big paychecks, and they’re noticeably sleeker, with smoother edits and more complicated camera set-ups adding to their budgets.
One former exec describes Discovery+ as a “more general audience platform that doesn’t have the specificity that HBO Max was tailored to. I think Discovery is just a very ‘all’ audience, [they] don’t wanna make things that are political, topical, alienate Middle America—more Chip and Joanna,” they said, referring to the home renovation show Fixer Upper: Welcome Home hosted by Chip and Joanna Gaines.
“If David Zaslav had his wish, he would just program Chip and Joanna all day long,” the executive said. “There was just a massive, ‘We don’t need you. You’re not offering the things we’re focused on.’”
The change in perspective could also partly explain why so many titles have recently disappeared from HBO Max’s platform. Our sources agree that the removals are mostly related to money. The company can claim a tax break for the costs associated with certain shows as long as it promises to stop profiting off them, which means taking them down altogether.
“They’re canceling a lens of perspective that I don’t think exists when you look at Discovery-branded shows,” one former staffer said.
Speaking of the company’s plans to combine HBO Max and Discovery+ into one giant streaming service in the near future, the laid-off exec said: “Don’t be surprised if there’s a new name for the platform.”
Overall, there’s a sense that HBO Max’s executives of color were just another casualty in the company’s quest to get itself out of debt, content quality be damned.
“In terms of people seeing themselves reflected, whether it’s ethnic or LGBTQ, when you have people who are diverse, the lens with which they evaluate [content] factors in things that I think my white colleagues just don’t think about,” one former executive said.
“It’s deep,” said another. “What are they going to do with this disproportionate amount of people of color that were let go? They need to replace them in some capacity. Or do they not care? That’s what we’ve been told, that they just don’t care.”