He helped build Hulu. Now Jason Kilar must lead WarnerMedia into the streaming era
Jason Kilar, who helped build Hulu into a force in streaming video, has been named chief executive of WarnerMedia as the entertainment giant rapidly pivots to an online future.
He will lead the venerable media company — which owns such assets as HBO, CNN, TBS and the Warner Bros. movie and TV studio in Burbank — New York-based WarnerMedia said Wednesday.
The choice of Kilar, 48, is a logical one for AT&T-owned WarnerMedia. He was the founding chief executive of Hulu, serving as a key architect of the pioneering Santa Monica streaming service. He was previously a top executive at Amazon.com Inc.
He succeeds John Stankey, WarnerMedia’s current chief, who was promoted to the broader AT&T job in September. Stankey’s promotion puts him in line to succeed AT&T chief Randall Stephenson. Kilar will be based in Los Angeles and report to Stankey when he starts May 1.
Kilar’s appointment comes ahead of the pivotal May launch of HBO Max, AT&T’s bet that it can take on Netflix and Disney+ in the streaming wars. HBO Max will include a broad swath of original shows and movies produced by WarnerMedia divisions, as well as older hits including “Friends.” Kilar’s job puts him in direct competition with his old homes, Disney-operated Hulu and Amazon.
Kilar, who has been in talks with Stankey since early this year, said he likes WarnerMedia’s chances.
“On one side, you have one of the best storytelling companies in the world, and one of the top film and TV libraries in the world, and you marry that with state-of-the-art technology,” said Kilar, speaking by phone from his Hillsborough, Calif., home in Silicon Valley. “There’s a really interesting opportunity here to lean into the future.”
HBO Max will cost $14.99 a month, making it the most expensive new entry in the new media battlefront. Disney+ costs $6.99 a month, whereas incumbent Netflix charges $12.99 for its most common plan.
The stakes are high for AT&T-owned WarnerMedia. Its crown jewel, HBO, has long set the gold standard in television with such shows as “Succession,” “Game of Thrones” and “The Sopranos.” But the world is changing as tech companies draw eyeballs and talent away from legacy TV channels.
“Jason is a dynamic executive with the right skill set to lead WarnerMedia into the future,” Stankey said in a statement. “His experience in media and entertainment, direct-to-consumer video streaming and advertising is the perfect fit.”
The leadership change comes after activist investor Elliott Management pressured AT&T to shake up WarnerMedia, which the Dallas telecom purchased for $85 billion in 2018. One of the New York hedge fund’s priorities was for AT&T to install a media executive atop WarnerMedia.
With the impending HBO Max launch, though, Kilar said he does not foresee any immediate change in strategy. “Having been through a number of tech launches, I know my job, immediately, will be to get water and food for people in the building and cheer them on.”
Kilar brings digital chops to the new job. He worked at Amazon for nearly a decade, helping the Seattle e-commerce company break into DVD sales. He later served as senior vice president of worldwide application software, where he reported directly to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos on parts of the online customer experience.
In 2007, then-Fox President Peter Chernin and NBCUniversal Chief Executive Jeff Zucker plucked Kilar from Amazon to run the upstart streaming service that would become Hulu. Kilar seemed like an unconventional choice because he had no background in television. But he knew what worked on the internet. Now, Kilar will be the boss of Zucker, who runs CNN and Turner Sports.
Warner Bros. Chairwoman and CEO Ann Sarnoff and WarnerMedia Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt will also report to Kilar.
Kilar ran Hulu for nearly six years, until 2013. At the time, the streaming service was known for rebroadcasting network hits online. Even before the “peak TV” era, Kilar saw digital video, and TV content in particular, as the future of the media industry.
“TV is one of the most social mediums,” Kilar told a group of advertisers in 2012. “It’s going to be a big, big deal.”
Streaming services have upended the business of television, including for such legacy media companies as Warner Bros., HBO and their parent, AT&T, which owns DirecTV and a recently launched interactive digital version called AT&T TV.
Kilar eventually became frustrated by the conflicting mandates of Hulu, according to former associates. Back then, the joint venture had three owners: Fox, NBCUniversal and Walt Disney Co. Disney took control of Hulu last year through its purchase of Fox assets, and has said it will buy out the stake still held by NBCUniversal’s parent company, Comcast Corp.
After leaving, Kilar co-founded the video streaming service Vessel in 2013, which was acquired by Verizon about three years later. Verizon quickly shut down the San Francisco service and used its technology for its own streaming media strategy, which included the ill-fated platform Go90. Kilar left in 2017.
In addition to his executive roles, Kilar served as a board member at DreamWorks Animation from 2013 to ’16 and Univision Communications from 2016 to this year.
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