Throughout his career, whether as a producer or network executive, Bob Greenblatt has not shied away from challenges. He has sought out shows that drew attention because they were different. He helped build the fledgling FOX network in the ’90s with Beverly Hills, 90210, The X-Files and Ally McBeal. As a producer, Greenblatt brought to life Six Feet Under. At Showtime, he greenlit Weeds and Dexter, among several others that helped increase the premium cable network’s subscription base by 52 percent. When he became chairman of NBC Entertainment in 2011, he had to draw talent back to the broadcast network that had fallen into last place and rebuild the schedule. He did so with such hits as The Voice, the Dick Wolf Chicago franchise, The Blacklist, This Is Us and The Good Place. Under his leadership, NBC was the number one network in the 18-to-49 demographic for five consecutive years.
Now, as chairman of WarnerMedia Entertainment and direct-to-consumer, he is on the front line of the battle all media companies are waging: creating a streaming service that will satisfy sophisticated and budget-conscious consumers, who already have a lot of entertainment choices.
WarnerMedia Entertainment comprises HBO and the linear cable networks TNT, TBS and truTV. But the company’s big focus is the streaming platform HBO Max, which is scheduled to launch next year with 10,000 hours of content.
Greenblatt is overseeing the increase in volume and scope of HBO’s output, all of which will also run on HBO Max. He and his teams have been making deals with numerous creators, showrunners and actors, including Greg Berlanti, Reese Witherspoon, David E. Kelley, Julian Fellowes and Nicole Kidman. HBO Max will have new original series from the DC Entertainment world. Greenblatt is also tapping into IP and libraries from Warner Bros., Cartoon Network, and all divisions of the company. Acquired and co-produced product will also be important parts of HBO Max.
As Greenblatt tells World Screen, HBO will continue to focus on quality and provide the defining principles to everything HBO Max offers. Greenblatt welcomes the challenge of creating a new service that stands out from the competition—a task not dissimilar to the ones he has faced in the past and successfully overcome. In fact, his track record of success is being celebrated at MIPCOM, where he will be presented with the Personality of the Year Award.
WS: Throughout your career, you have found shows that made their networks stand out. In today’s environment, what are the challenges of finding a standout show and, more importantly, finding the right home for it?
GREENBLATT: There’s never been more opportunity and the creative community has clearly stepped up, so great ideas are coming from so many people these days. I’ve always been in a fight to find extraordinary or game-changing material. It’s really about trying to find something that breaks through and speaks to people and is emotionally resonant. There is a lot of that in the world today. I’m happy that we are a company that tries to nurture those kinds of shows. When I was a young executive at FOX, we were the fourth network and had to become an alternative. I’ve been doing the same thing ever since. Being an alternative and finding a way to differentiate yourself is important, especially now, in a world in which there is so much programming. You have to have the people who are finding that. We have a group of executives at all of our networks who are really good at delivering content that is unique and distinctive, from HBO to the Turner networks, and HBO Max will be that as well. We want to be a reflection of HBO in terms of cultivating the best of the best. It’s our job to do that and it’s always been the challenge we all face.
WS: As you and Casey Bloys, HBO’s president of programming, increase HBO’s offering, are there certain programming genres that you are considering?
GREENBLATT: HBO is doing what it’s always done. Casey Bloys, who is very talented at running the programming division, has widened the lens a little bit. Some shows are a little bit younger than maybe they have been in the past—Euphoria is a good example. There are some other projects on the drawing board that might be broader in other ways, too. We are looking to extend all the demos a little bit, but they are basically doing what they have been doing all these years. And the new original programming on HBO Max will broaden that even further. HBO skews younger than most people think, and Casey is trying to make it even younger but not doing a big, drastic change. He has a wonderful group of executives who have been doing this with him for a while, and some even before he was in his current job. They are really good at continuing what HBO has been doing for all this time but also growing and expanding gradually for the future.
WS: As you increase the output of programming, some shows may have to be produced more quickly than others. Is the straight-to-series model important? Are you still doing pilots?
GREENBLATT: We do it all. Pilots can be very instructive and helpful when you are trying to create a new show and a completely new universe. At the same time, we live in a moment when the straight-to-series model is the name of the game, and we’re very comfortable with that strategy as well. We do a number of shows straight-to-series and several that come from the traditional pilot model. We recently announced three pilots that we are making for HBO Max: a half-hour dramedy called Generation and two other dramas, Red Bird Lane and Rules of Magic. And over the summer we picked up a dozen shows straight-to-series for the service as well. It depends on competitive reasons sometimes, and on what is the best way to develop a project and bring it forward.
WS: In launching HBO Max, how critical is the HBO brand and what it stands for?
GREENBLATT: HBO is in the title, so it’s important that we envelop and respect the HBO brand here. We believe in HBO as a worldwide brand that will immediately help us launch our streaming service everywhere. I would argue it’s one of the greatest brands in the history of our medium. It’s the gold standard, and we want to apply that to HBO Max. We will obviously be expanding beyond what HBO brings because the service will have a greater volume than HBO and a more expansive demo reach. But HBO is the heart of the service and it’s going to give us some of the defining principles of everything we do, which is, first and foremost, quality. So yes, HBO is really important to HBO Max.
WS: How are you planning to augment HBO Max’s offering beyond originals? Are acquisitions part of the strategy as well?
GREENBLATT: Yes, all of the above. Acquisitions, library content from the incredible Warner Bros. television and film libraries and MGM is part of that as well. We are doing a lot of new original programming beyond HBO, but yes, a lot of acquisitions and a lot of library content.
WS: Library product can be extremely valuable to a direct-to-consumer service. I’m thinking of shows like Friends.
GREENBLATT: We’ve seen that from existing platforms like Netflix and Amazon. We have data on some of those acquired shows, several of which our company—Warner Bros. Television—produces. I got the Netflix research when I was at NBC with The Office, and now I see it with Friends. Those shows are extraordinary leaders in engagement on those services. We know that only a handful of titles drive a great deal of engagement on those platforms, and the two shows I just mentioned are two of the biggest. The shows we produce from Warner Bros. for The CW—many of them from Greg Berlanti and DC Entertainment—are big players on Netflix. We know that. That’s why we made a new deal going forward with CW shows like Katy Keene and Batwoman. Those are important drivers for audiences. So it’s original programming, acquisitions and library that adds to the totality of the service. And we are prepared to invest heavily in all of them.
WS: TNT, TBS and truTV have been significant brands for Turner and now WarnerMedia. How are you maintaining the relevance of those brands, and what role will they play on HBO Max?
GREENBLATT: A lot of the programming from those networks will go into HBO Max, usually slightly delayed due to carriage deals we have [with pay-TV partners], unlike HBO programming that will be there day-and-date. But TNT, TBS and truTV are very important to us. They are heavily watched. They are at the highest level of what distributors pay for cable networks because of a rich mix of original programming, movies and top-notch sports. It’s our goal to keep them strong and vibrant. Much of the scripted and unscripted programming will eventually find its way to HBO Max.
WS: In planning and programming HBO Max, how is WarnerMedia Entertainment working with Warner Bros. and the news and sports division of WarnerMedia?
GREENBLATT: We are working with every asset and network that we have in this company, and it’s a big and wide-ranging company. It’s Warner Bros. television and film, CNN, and we talked about the Turner networks and HBO. There are Cartoon Network and Looney Tunes and Hanna-Barbera in the library. We are acquiring a lot of library product but also commissioning new projects from all those divisions.
On the news front, at the moment, we won’t have any live news. But CNN has a rich documentary and reality department, and we’re going to be working with them on those kinds of programs. In every area of this company that makes excellent programming, we are trying to find ways to either license existing product or make new product with them. The beauty of this HBO Max service is this broad collection of assets—it is really unique in this landscape of SVOD services.
WS: Time slots, lead-in shows, demographics and on-air promotion are key when scheduling linear networks. What factors go into programming a direct-to-consumer service?
GREENBLATT: We are doing things, in some respects, in the old-fashioned way. We believe in the human touch, and whether it’s a linear network or a programming service, scheduling is meaningful. Of course, we know people watch shows when and where they want and they make their own schedules. But we have also extended the meaning of the word scheduling to how things are arranged on our service. Things are going to change monthly and weekly, and when our new original shows come into the ecosystem, what are we going to have as companions to those new shows? How are we going to present the library product that might serve as a companion to a new original? All of those decisions aren’t made by machines or computers. They’re made by people in a room who are clever and creative. We really like that idea, and we have great people who are doing it. You’ll feel that as you interact with our service.
WS: So in a world of data and algorithms, there is still room for gut instinct and experience!
GREENBLATT: As we look at next year when the service is up and running, we already know when all the original programs from HBO are going to premiere. So when a big show comes back on the linear service of HBO, for example, Euphoria, we are going to put shows beside it on HBO Max that feel like companions. If you’re watching Euphoria, you might also be interested in other shows—it’s not as simplistic as “if you watched this then you’ll watch this”—but we’re doing it the old-fashioned way. I think you’ll perceive that when you’re in HBO Max.
WS: You said HBO shows will be on HBO Max on the same day and date. Does that mean that some shows on HBO Max will run weekly instead of entire seasons being dropped all at once?
GREENBLATT: All of that is still to be formally announced, but we have to follow the pattern of HBO because the linear service is going to match the HBO Max service. We can’t put the first episode of Westworld out on the linear HBO and then put ten episodes of Westworld on Max on the same day. Because that is the case, we are going to mostly follow that pattern with other originals. We know our creators and the people who make the shows for us are excited about that. We love the idea of creating interest and cultural relevance with shows that run 10 or 12 weeks, or a few months, as opposed to a new show being released all on one day. After the weekend binge is over, most of the audience who is going to watch it is done, and suddenly they are on to the next show. We have shows like Big Little Lies, or Chernobyl or Game of Thrones that were exciting weekly events for people, and they talked about them in between episodes. The trade press wrote about them. The New York Times wrote about them. A lot of that goes away when you put the whole season out in one day.
WS: And I’m sure creators like that, too.
GREENBLATT: They do, but we’re also not so myopic that we don’t realize that people like to binge programming. We understand that. So you’ll be able to binge to your heart’s content in terms of library content, acquisitions to some degree and previous seasons of shows. But in the current run of a series—its new episodes—we are going to pretty much follow the weekly cadence. We might tease a new show with a few episodes right up front, to get people more engaged. But by and large, it’s going to be the weekly rollout.
WS: What can WarnerMedia offer talent?
GREENBLATT: I like to think we are the company talent comes to for the best experience possible. We have extraordinary executives that are smart and respectful. We have platforms and networks that are dependent on great content and therefore, we have to be a place that is very responsive to the creative process. And that means in development, in production and in marketing, in the sense that we’re not doing a thousand shows at once, we’re doing a number that is manageable. We call it bespoke or hand-curated. We like volume, too, but more important is giving the artist, whether that’s a writer or producer or director or actor, a really great experience. Their shows are important to us. We want them to be culturally interesting and relevant, and we want to make [sure they] are marketed and positioned properly. HBO has stood for that for decades and still does. I’m confident that HBO Max will as well.
WS: Will co-produced or co-financed projects continue to have a place on HBO?
GREENBLATT: We love co-productions. The world is international these days. We’ve been one of the leaders in this area, and some unusual and new things have come out of these co-productions that we otherwise wouldn’t have found, like the extraordinary Chernobyl or the upcoming Catherine the Great starring Helen Mirren. We’re open to these shows across HBO and HBO Max and our other networks.
WS: Do you have a message for producers or writers outside the U.S.?
GREENBLATT: We are open to all kinds of ideas. We now live in a world where international shows, even non-English-language shows, are working on some of these platforms. We have a wonderful Israeli limited series on HBO called Our Boys, which is shot all in Hebrew and Arabic—the reviews here have been ecstatic. We have My Brilliant Friend and The New Pope on HBO. We’re going to try to put some foreign-language shows on HBO Max as well. But they don’t all have to be in a foreign language either. We’re just open to great ideas. We are wide open to co-productions.