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Ex-DramaFever exec sues Warner Bros., alleging anti-Asian bias

Warner Bros. is accused of “systematically” removing Asian Americans from leadership roles in one of its divisions.
Fans and staff of Dramafever celebrate at their 5 year anniversary party at Toshi's Living Room in New York on Oct. 9, 2014.Michael Rubenstein / for NBC News

A former executive at a division of Warner Bros. is suing the company over allegations that it recently terminated all of its Asian-American executives who worked for a since-shuttered streaming-video service while keeping all of its white executives.

The discrimination suit, filed in federal court in Manhattan on Wednesday, accuses Warner Bros. of “systematically” removing Asian Americans from leadership roles in Digital Labs, “because it viewed those Asian American executives as fundamentally ‘foreign’ and incapable of engaging with Warner Bros.’ primarily White executive class.”

Digital Labs is the division under which DramaFever, a streaming-video service founded in 2009 that specialized in Korean dramas and other Asian programming, was acquired by Warner Bros. in 2016.

Chung H. Chang, who was vice president of finance for Digital Labs, asserts in court papers that Warner Bros. retaliated against him after he hired an attorney and informed the company of his discrimination claim.

Chang, 46, who is Korean American, alleges that Warner Bros. tried to falsely blame him for “potentially significant legal liabilities which Warner Bros. now faces given the Company’s failure to properly license music contained within television shows and movies” hosted by Digital Labs.

Warner Bros. announced in October it was closing down DramaFever because of “business reasons” and a “rapidly changing marketplace for K-drama content.”

The lawsuit accuses Warner Bros. of using DramaFever’s closure “to mask its discriminatory conduct.”

A Warner Bros. spokesperson said in an email that the claims in the case are without merit.

“We will vigorously defend ourselves and we expect to prevail,” he wrote.

Chang began working for DramaFever in May 2015. Warner Bros., meanwhile, was in talks to acquire the streaming-video service from Softbank, a Japanese conglomerate with a controlling stake in DramaFever, court papers said.

The alleged discriminatory behavior began immediately after the acquisition in 2016, the lawsuit contends.

At one of the first executive-level meetings, a Warner Bros. media executive allegedly said it was “amazing” how good the Korean executives’ English was and also expressed surprise over how they did not have accents, court papers said.

One of the two executives also said at the end of the meeting that he wanted to give a “good American hug” to the Asian-American attendees, the lawsuit claims.

All of this was concerning and “at least hypocritical in part” since Warner Bros.’ CEO is Kevin Tsujihara, who is Japanese American, the suit notes.

In early 2018, Chang raised his concerns to Patty Hirsch, who replaced DramaFever co-founder Seung Bak as CEO, according to court papers.

“However, Ms. Hirsch was uncomfortable hearing about Chang’s experience and, rather than directly addressing his concerns, she quickly changed the subject and moved on to another topic,” the lawsuit alleges.

Hirsch declined to comment through a Warner Bros. spokesperson. “The allegations against Ms. Hirsch are completely unfounded and she has our unequivocal support,” a Warner Bros. spokesperson said.

Hirsch later allegedly stripped Chang of some of his responsibilities, saying she wanted to “revisit everything” after taking over, and began excluding him from meetings that involved personnel decisions, court papers assert.

Then, when DramaFever closed in October 2018, Hirsch and Warner Bros. terminated all three Asian-American employees who were listed as vice presidents for the streaming-video service, while keeping on the remaining four who are white, the lawsuit alleges. The sole executive director, an Asian American, was also let go.

Chang alleges that after he made Warner Bros. aware of his discrimination and retaliation claims, the company began interviewing his former colleagues to blame music copyright issues on him. The lawsuit said Chang, who never received a negative performance evaluation, had no role assessing legal issues or questions of music licensing while employed by DramaFever.

The suit claims the alleged retaliation has caused Chang anxiety and stress and asks for damages to be decided at trial.

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