Richard Plepler

9-Richard-PleplerYears from now, when scholars look back at the history of television, they will undoubtedly cite The Wire and The Sopranos as two of the principal shows that ushered in the golden age of television. Both shows aired on HBO, the premium pay service that has since been continuously pushing the boundaries and raising the bar of scripted fare. Game of Thrones has made television cinematic and has become a must-watch sensation around the world. True Detective, along with such HBO miniseries and movies as Olive Kitteridge and All the Way, drew established A-list feature-film and television talent—in front of and behind the camera—to the small screen. Girls, Veep and Silicon Valley have brought a new approach to television comedy.

HBO’s pursuit of quality and singular voices has paid off in critical acclaim—at this year’s Primetime Emmys, it nabbed six wins, including best drama for Game of Thrones and best comedy for Veep—buzz-worthiness and subscribers. More than that, it has raised the expectations of what a scripted show should be like: highly stylized, ambitious in concept, expertly written and exquisitely performed—in short, auteur television.

Under the leadership of its chairman and CEO, Richard Plepler, HBO has broadened the scope of its programming. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and Any Given Wednesday with Bill Simmons have been added in late-night slots. Sesame Street joined the roster of children’s and family programming. An already rich offering of documentaries earned even greater acclaim with The Jinx. And a partnership with VICE Media has given way to a weekly news show and a daily newscast targeted to millennials.

Keeping an eye on changing trends in consumer behavior has been a top priority for Plepler. In addition to the linear channel, the multiplex channels and on-demand offerings, there is the authenticated service, HBO GO. And HBO NOW, a stand-alone streaming service, was introduced last year to attract consumers who don’t have a pay-TV subscription but do have a broadband connection.

HBO’s businesses stretch far beyond U.S. borders, with feeds in Europe, Latin America and Asia, in addition to international productions and program sales.

There is no question that since The Sopranos, many other outlets have been producing high-end, award-winning programming. Despite the growing number of shows across linear and nonlinear platforms, Plepler believes that HBO’s main competitor is viewers’ time. But as long as HBO remains fully focused on doing what it does best, and doing it better than everyone else, Plepler is sure HBO will continue to turn its subscribers into addicts—viewers who become such passionate fans of a show that they can’t live without it.

Plepler talks to World Screen about the many ways HBO programming reaches its fans, the importance of the international businesses, and HBO’s continued ability to attract top talent.

WS: Tell us about the rollout and take-up of HBO NOW so far and about your multilateral approach to distribution.
PLEPLER: I think the most important word is “options.” What we are really striving to do is afford our consumers as many options to watch HBO as we possibly can, whether that’s through HBO GO, which comes with your subscription, and you can then watch it on whatever platform you want, or if you want to buy it as a stand-alone streaming service, you can through HBO NOW. What is important is that as the world evolves and as consumers look to different means of getting their television, we want to make sure that we have given them a wide range of options to do that.

Now, what’s important to remember is that none of our growth, which in the last two years has been greater than in any two-year period in 30 years, is exclusive to any one particular distribution model. We’re growing in the cable world, in the satellite world, in the telco world and in the OTT world. That’s what I mean by multilateral, all different forms of growth. The vast preponderance of our growth will be with our cable, satellite and telco partners. It’s always important to remember that HBO GO provides the same versatility of viewing that HBO NOW provides, which is that you can watch wherever, whenever or however you want. That’s what’s key to us, and that’s how we think about the future.

WS: You mentioned your cable, satellite and telco partners. How are they accepting the option of bundling HBO NOW with their offerings? Are they embracing that as a way of promoting their high-speed broadband offerings?
PLEPLER: We’re in conversation with our distributors all the time. We want our distributors to do whatever is best for them to grow their business. And we want to give them as many options as they want to grow their business. So if they choose to bundle HBO NOW with their offerings, we think that’s great. If they want to sell us through skinny bundles, we think that’s great. If they want to sell us through what they call a triple-play package, we think that’s great. What we’re saying is, HBO is a great driver of the package you sell whatever that package may be. The research is pretty clear. When you have HBO inside a video bundle, you are going to get a lot less churn out of that bundle than if you don’t. And since less than 1 percent of the consumer base has left the bundle to get HBO over the top [HBO NOW], we don’t think it’s cannibalistic. We see this all as additive growth, not only in terms of the traditional ecosystem but in terms of the new ecosystem as well.

WS: How does the viewing break down between linear, on demand, HBO GO and HBO NOW?
PLEPLER: I think the vast majority of viewing is on connected TVs. When you look at the numbers on HBO GO and HBO NOW, by far the largest preponderance of viewing is on connected televisions. We see that as being the trend that is likely to continue. Again, the point being, we want to give our customers ways to watch HBO however, wherever and whenever they want.

WS: Since you can schedule in a linear fashion and you also have HBO NOW, which would allow you to drop as many episodes as you want, are you still seeing value in scheduling your new seasons or new show premieres one episode per week, as opposed to putting an entire season on HBO NOW?
PLEPLER: Yes, and I think there’s something very dynamic and very important to the zeitgeist when people are coming every week, whatever time they want during the week, whenever they want to get another bite out of some of our extraordinary content. There’s a lot to that experience. If you think about Game of Thrones over a ten-week period occupying the cultural conversation, it raises the question, Do you really want to put that out in one bite? The way that the internet disseminates news would spoil a lot of the narrative for people. Take our wonderful series The Night Of. I can assure you, having seen it all, that the denouement of that series is a great exciting reveal. To put that out all at once and to spoil that build-up over an eight-week period diminishes the fun and expectations for your consumer. We like our model. It doesn’t mean that once in a while we may not come up with an idea where we would put up something all at once, maybe a documentary series or something, but I like the model that we have. And of course, if people want to binge, they can wait two or three weeks and then catch up and do it that way.

WS: In what areas are you seeing growth in your businesses outside of the U.S.?
PLEPLER: Everywhere. Our international story is a terrific story. We grew more than 6 million new international subscriptions last year. This is very much a global company. We have close to 130 million subscriptions all over the world. The means of distribution and the means of disseminating our content vary, and with OTT we’ve added a fourth dimension. We have our networks in 60 countries in Latin America, Asia and Europe. We license to more than 150 territories. We have Home-of-HBO deals in 12 countries around the world where we’re essentially renting our name to the partners’ brands, so Sky Italia, Home of HBO; Sky Atlantic, Home of HBO; and Foxtel, Home of HBO. And now we’ve added OTT in Argentina, Mexico and Brazil and, of course, Spain to come later in the year. So what’s exciting, again to my point about options, is that there’s not a one-size-fits-all strategy for our international business. We look at it market by market, and we try to make a determination as to what’s the best way to monetize our content, which of course we own, and what’s the best way to expand our brand. We look at each market, and we make a determination based on answers to those questions.

Perfect case studies would be in Spain, where we took a look at the market and decided the best means for future growth and building our brand was an OTT business; and in Canada, where we signed a deal with Bell Media. We decided that licensing our programming to Bell Media was the best strategy. We don’t just look at short-term profits; we look at long-term growth, and we make these decisions based on that. But we also do it in a way that, should the template change in a few years, we have the flexibility to pivot as well.

WS: There are many more outlets now that are offering original programming compared to five, certainly ten years ago. Has this crowded competitive market had an impact on the programming choices that HBO makes?
PLEPLER: No, but it certainly keeps us on our toes. It’s interesting that in the last five to ten years or so, where there has been a wide body of quality television, we have the biggest show in our history, Game of Thrones; we had the biggest freshman show in our history with the first season of True Detective; we have more half-hour comedies winning more awards than at any time. We have more late-night programs with John Oliver and Bill Maher and Bill Simmons (and Jon Stewart coming) than at any time in our history. And we are winning more awards and growing more subscribers and more revenue and making more profit than at any time in our history. So, I would simply say that if we play our game and focus on what makes our brand unique and differentiated, which is working with the best talent out there, we are going to continue to have more than our fair share of acclaim and attention. This is not a zero-sum game, and I am the first to say there is other good work being done out there and I commend it. I think it’s good for our industry. My job is to make sure that HBO is playing to the best of our ability and working with the people we want to work with, the talent we believe is particularly suited to HBO: whether it’s Steven Zaillian and Richard Price doing The Night Of; Danny McBride and Jody Hill doing Vice Principals; Dwayne Johnson and Stephen Levinson doing Ballers; or J.J. Abrams and Jonah Nolan doing Westworld, and on and on the list goes. It’s the talent, and I say this over and over again, it’s all about the talent that comes to work here. That talent is sacred, and I’m very honored that our brand continues to draw and compel the best talent to come to work with us. If we can continue to do what we’re doing and play our game, we’re going to continue to make a lot of great shows that people want to watch.

WS: So the fact that there is more original programming has not impeded HBO from attracting the type of talent you want to work with?
PLEPLER: Oh, I think quite the opposite. We’re working with more people across more genres than at any time in our history. And I think the proof is in the pudding across the variety of programming that we are doing. If you look at the canvas that we’re painting on now, it’s bigger, it’s broader, it involves more shows. We’re working with more people, and I don’t think the brand has ever been in a better position than now.

WS: Just a word about John Oliver. What an incredible guy he is, and what a service he is rendering—investigative reporting done through comedy!
PLEPLER: Well, thank you for saying that, because John is a quintessential example of expanding the canvas with great talent. As is Jon Stewart, whose voice and sensibility will be coming to the network this fall, and Bill Simmons, who started in June with his show. Over and over again, we are continuing to replenish and reimagine what the next iterations are. I’m very excited about that. Again, I make this point because I think it’s important, with all that’s happening out there, we’re doing more than ever, and we’re getting more recognition than ever, and we are continuing to do superb work. If it’s the golden age of television, the golden age has been very good to HBO.

WS: Well, it can be said that HBO has contributed to creating the golden age of television.
PLEPLER: I think both things are true.

WS: Because it’s a crowded television environment, what are the challenges involved in launching a new show?
PLEPLER: I think our brand is such that we make an implicit promise to the consumer: if we are stepping on stage with a show, whether it’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver or Vice Principals or Ballers or The Night Of or Westworld, we are going to do something that is differentiated from [the rest of] what you see. Because the brand is so powerful, we have a little bit of an advantage. People look to us when we are coming forward with a new show [with the expectation] that it is going to be special and it is going to be an original voice. So as long as we meet that challenge and deliver on that implicit promise, like you’ve seen us do with Vice Principals and John and Bill and The Night Of, then I think there is a built-in audience, because there is a built-in expectation of quality.

WS: And your goal is still to create HBO addicts, people who keep coming back because they can’t get enough?
PLEPLER: Yes, what you want to do is make sure that your shows are addictive to at least part of the consumer base. Everybody isn’t going to be addicted to everything, and it would, of course, be foolish to think that everybody is going to love The Night Of or Westworld or Silicon Valley or Veep or Game of Thrones or John Oliver, or whatever it is. But the people in your consumer base who do love a show become fanatics; they become addicts. What we want is to get them inside our home and begin to see the richness of our work.

Now, there is something we haven’t talked about, which I think is important to remember, and that’s the power of theatrical movies both here and around the world, because theatrical movies [continue to garner more than] 70 percent of viewing at HBO. It’s important to remember that they also cross a lot of demographics. You cover an enormous amount of your subscriber base with our theatrical movies, and we have the wonderful blessing of having four Hollywood studios under license over the coming years: Warner Bros.—a member of our family—Fox, Universal and Summit. Original programming gets so much attention and time in the conversation that I think it’s often obscured how big a role movies play in viewership.

WS: Tell us about the VICE newscast that is launching in the fall and your relationship with VICE Media.
PLEPLER: We’re very excited about VICE News Tonight. The [weekly] VICE show, which [has completed its fourth] season on HBO, has done terrifically well. They have proven that in the fields of news and public affairs, the VICE voice is also a quintessential HBO voice, and it is about great storytelling, great narrative and differentiation. We had a long conversation with Shane [Smith, co-founder and CEO of VICE] about doing a daily news show. They hired Josh Tyrangiel, who formerly was an editor at Time and Bloomberg Businessweek and a world-class journalist, to be the executive in charge of this. I think you’re going to see a very engaging, dynamic, vibrant daily news show targeted at millennials, which looks at a very complicated world, brings it context and will end up being the next big addictive show on TV.

WS: I’ve read that when asked what HBO’s biggest competitor is, instead of mentioning a specific outlet, you’ve said it’s consumers’ time. Could you expand on that?
PLEPLER: If you look at the way people work and have families and sleep, there is a certain amount of discretionary leisure time. There is an enormous amount of television. John Landgraf [the CEO of FX Networks] has been quoted as saying there are 412 original scripted series. No one can keep up with all of that. This is where I think brand matters, because people look at our brand, and they know that it is a statement about quality. So when people have limited amounts of discretionary leisure time, what becomes more and more important is how entertainment is curated and organized for people, because nobody can run around 20 different places. One of the great things that HBO reflects is that you can curate great entertainment and give people great value, going back to where we started, not only because of the range in quality of our programming but the options that we provide for viewing it. And then the value proposition of an HBO subscription only goes up, because you have many options to view many different things. In a crowded environment, that speaks very well to our strategy and our future success.

WS: As you look out 12 to 24 months, what opportunities do you see for growth? And on the other hand, is there anything that keeps you up at night?
PLEPLER: What’s exciting is that we are working with our distributors to incentivize them to continue to grow HBO, and we’re putting out what we think is a great product that their consumers want. We have a lot of options for how people can get HBO and options portend growth because you are simply making this great value available to more people in more different ways. I’m very pleased that our cable, satellite and telco partners all see the value of marketing HBO for their companies. That’s terrific. This is about incentivizing them to want to continue to grow HBO and presenting options for our consumers so they can get it how they want to get it. That’s why I’m so excited about our growth. That and the fact that I am thrilled that so much talent wants to be inside our company. You have Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon coming with Big Little Lies. Anthony Hopkins, Jeffrey Wright, Ed Harris and Evan Rachel Woods in Westworld. Next year you have Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer coming with The Wizard of Lies, and on and on the list goes. As we continue to draw great talent and as we make our product available to more people in more different ways, that is a great recipe for future growth and expansion of our business.

What keeps me up? Well, my job is to make sure that we play our game to our fullest capacity. So I’m always thinking about whether we are doing that. Are we working with the talent we want to work with? Are we taking advantage of every opportunity in marketing and distribution? And are we expanding our creative base as broadly as we want to? I like healthy neuroticism! I think it’s a good thing. You should never sit back. Nobody at our company sits back and rests on their laurels. We’re always thinking about what’s next, and if you’re not thinking about what’s next, you’re not doing your job.