The WarnerMedia-Discovery deal could have gone very differently.

After its $100 billion deal to buy Time Warner, and spending millions more to fight a Justice Department lawsuit that delayed the deal, AT&T wants a do-over. This reversal culminated in the announcement last week that it would spin off WarnerMedia, as the former Time Warner is now known, to merge with the reality-TV giant Discovery.

In the three short years since AT&T closed the deal to buy Time Warner, AT&T radically upended the business by cutting staff, angering the talent and firing executives and becoming something of a Hollywood villain. Some of WarnerMedia’s most successful executives, including Richard Plepler of HBO, left or were pushed out. The company cut more than 2,000 jobs.

It could have been different if a phone call in 2016 had come just a few weeks earlier, according to the DealBook newsletter. In October that year, shortly before Time Warner and AT&T first announced their deal, Robert A. Iger, the chief executive of the Walt Disney Company at the time, placed a call to Jeffrey Bewkes, the head of Time Warner, according to two people familiar with those details.

The Disney leader asked Mr. Bewkes if he’d be interested in a possible merger. It was too late, Mr. Bewkes said: There was already something in the works. Mr. Iger wished him well and hung up the phone. Later, Mr. Iger called another media chief in the hopes of forging a deal. It was Rupert Murdoch.

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