By Ryan Faughnder / Los Angeles Times
Three months after Warner Bros. was rocked by a sex scandal, the nearly century-old movie and television studio is getting its first female chief executive.
BBC executive Ann Sarnoff has been named chairwoman and CEO of Burbank-based Warner Bros., parent company WarnerMedia said Monday. Sarnoff replaces Kevin Tsujihara, who stepped down in March following allegations that he had an extramarital affair with an actress who later got roles in Warner Bros. movies.
The appointment comes as a relief to a studio that has operated under a cloud of uncertainty since Tsujihara’s departure.
John Stankey, CEO of AT&T-owned WarnerMedia, has been under pressure to find a respected female executive to stabilize the company, which is one of the biggest producers of movies and television programming.
As head of Warner Bros., Sarnoff, 57, will become one of the most powerful women in Hollywood overnight, overseeing a vast array of entertainment properties including DC superheroes Batman and Superman, Looney Tunes, the Harry Potter universe, TV shows including “The Bachelor” and “Young Sheldon,” video games and consumer products.
The company is also in the midst of a key transition in order to compete with growing streaming video giants including Netflix and rival studios such as Disney that are launching their own online subscription services. WarnerMedia is preparing to create a streaming service that will use its popular brands, including Warner Bros. and HBO, to draw subscribers.
Sarnoff, who is president of BBC Studios Americas, will be based in Los Angeles and will start the job later this summer, WarnerMedia said. In the interim, Burbank-based Warner Bros. has been led by the studios’ film chief Toby Emmerich, TV leader Peter Roth and Chief Financial Officer Kim Williams.
The choice of Sarnoff was somewhat of a surprise. The Georgetown University and Harvard Business School alumna has had a roughly three-decade career in business and media, holding major roles at companies including Nickelodeon, the Women’s National Basketball Assn. and Dow Jones before joining BBC. But hers was not among the names bandied about in the entertainment industry as a likely candidate to head Warner Bros.
However, WarnerMedia said Sarnoff’s skill set and experience will serve Warner Bros. well as it tries to adapt to rapidly changing viewer habits. At BBC, she led the broadcaster’s efforts to grow properties such as “Doctor Who” and “Top Gear,” and also guided the creation of BritBox, a streaming service targeting Anglophiles in the U.S. and Canada.
Speaking by phone, Sarnoff said she wants to bring that same sense of collaborative leadership and innovation to her new job.
“My first job is to get out there on the lot and start hearing people’s thoughts about the future,” Sarnoff said. “I’m a collaborative person by nature. I tend to see opportunities that cross divisional lines.”
Sarnoff joined BBC in 2010 as chief operating officer of BBC Worldwide North America, where she helped grow distribution of BBC America to 80 million subscribers. Before that role, she served as an executive at news company Dow Jones, where she led new ventures and oversaw corporate strategy. She was also chief operating officer of the WNBA, recruited by NBA commissioner David Stern.
Her media experience also includes a decade at Viacom Inc., where she served as Nickelodeon’s head of consumer products and business development, leading the group that created the channel Noggin and helped boost franchises such as “Rugrats” and “Blue’s Clues.”