Richard Plepler's exit from HBO marks the end of an era. It also tells us about where the media business is headed.

March 1, 2019 | Hollywood


Good morning. Richard Plepler's exit from HBO marks the end of an era. It also tells us about where the media business is headed.


• Welcome to a special edition of the Market.


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The Richard Plepler legacy


Moving the Market: Richard Plepler was not just HBO's chief executive. He was its head of state, its chief diplomat and its chief propagandist. He made HBO the TV home for Hollywood's finest, long before Netflix or Amazon or Hulu. He elevated the brand by serving as its ambassador among the political and media elite. And he hustled, wining and dining producers and talent, and selling them on the idea that HBO equaled prestige.


• "Our promise is the curation of excellence and the curation of quality," Plepler often said. And while HBO had hits and misses, there is no denying that its investment in great storytelling changed the nature of television.


"The Sopranos," "Sex and the City," "The Wire" — Plepler had a hand in all of these. And as the network's chief, he green-lit dozens of successful shows, including "Game of Thrones," "Westworld," "Boardwalk Empire" and "Big Little Lies."


• The HBO catalogue influenced American culture and gave rise to television's new golden age. Without HBO, we wouldn't have "Mad Men," "Breaking Bad," "The Americans," "Homeland," "House of Cards" or "The Handmaid's Tale."


The Big Picture: HBO wrote the rules of prestige television in the 21st century. Plepler was instrumental in putting together the portfolio, building the brand and marketing all of it. But above all, he was instrumental to making HBO the home for Hollywood's A List.


Oh/and: Plepler made money for HBO, adding 40 million subscribers during his tenure and more than $2 billion in profits last year.



What AT&T wants/gets


What's Next: AT&T chief Randall Stephenson and his WarnerMedia deputy John Stankey now want to package HBO and Turner into one product that they can use to better compete with Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+ and other streaming services in the new war for consumer engagement.


Why? Stephenson believes he can combine AT&T subscriber data and WarnerMedia viewership data to create more sophisticated targeting for advertisers. "This is taking to the world of premium video what Facebook and Google have done so expertly in the world of digital," he has said.


To that end, Stankey has asked former NBC Entertainment chief Bob Greenblatt to take over the combined HBO-Turner offering, as I reported earlier this week. All indications are that he will accept the job.


• Turner Broadcasting chief David Levy is also planning to leave the company, according to two sources familiar with the situation. Levy is preparing to release a statement today, the sources said.


The move to ingest HBO into a larger offering run by someone else — Greenblatt or otherwise — was always going to upset Plepler because it robbed him of his autonomy and threatened to rob HBO of its prestige.


Stankey and Plepler clashed from the start. One was a corporate "Bell head" from Texas; the other a fashionable New York media executive who hobnobbed with the city's cultural elite.


• In an infamous town hall meeting last June, Stankey told Plepler that the company was not making enough money and needed to increase its output, setting the stage for a contentious relationship that never repaired.


The Upshot: Stephenson and Stankey are launching the WarnerMedia streaming service on the back of HBO, but they're doing it without the man who — thanks to his unique marketing capabilities and his longstanding relationships with talent — is largely responsible for HBO's success.


• In an increasingly crowded arena where brand matters more than ever — and where talent relationships matter more than ever — AT&T may have put itself at a disadvantage by cutting ties with Plepler.


Unless ... they land Greenblatt and he brings the A-team over from NBC.

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Writing on the Wall, July 2018: "Richard Plepler's Last Dance: AT&T wants HBO to transform itself from a boutique for smart, high-minded shows into a 24/7 operation like Netflix that produces more content and drives more user engagement ... It is a sea-change moment for Plepler, the affable HBO chief and Manhattan-Hollywood socialite who has long enjoyed the luxury of prioritizing a few quality shows on Sunday nights."


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Plepler: The next Alan Horn?


The Big Question: Does Richard Plepler have a second act?


In 2011, Time Warner chief Jeff Bewkes forced Warner Brothers president Alan Horn out of the company despite more than a decade of hits, including the highly lucrative Harry Potter franchise and box office powerhouses like “Ocean’s Eleven," "The Dark Knight" and "The Departed."


In 2012, Disney chief Bob Iger hired Horn as chairman of Walt Disney Studios, which includes Marvel, Pixar and LucasFilm, and will soon include 20th Century Fox.


In 2014, Horn led Disney Studios to a record $1.55 billion in profit. He has been knocking out hit after hit ever since, including 13 of the 18 Disney films to earn more than $1 billion at the box office.


A Hollywood source texts, re: Plepler: "[AT&T] is running the risk of making the WB mistake with Alan Horn. They pushed him out and then he went to Disney and has been whooping their ass ever since."


• "What if Apple or Amazon hires Richard?"


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TV After HBO: Open Season


Talk of Tinseltown: Despite Plepler's success, HBO's grip on premium content started slipping a long time ago, as traditional competitors began emulating its approach and new entrants like Netflix and Amazon surged to prominence in the streaming space.


The war for premium content is only going to become more contentious as Disney, AT&T, Comcast and Apple prepare to launch their own streaming services over the next two years.


The Big Picture: No one has a monopoly on great content anymore. More to the point, nearly every major player in the game is now capable of creating a runaway hit.


To wit, look at the Emmys during Plepler's tenure at HBO.


• From 1992 to 1998, the only networks nominated for Outstanding Drama Series were ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox.


• From 1999 to 2007, HBO was the only non-broadcast network to receive nominations in the category (11), and it won twice.


• In 2008, AMC, FX and Showtime all joined the fray. PBS joined in 2012, Netflix in 2013 and Hulu in 2017.


The Upshot: Plepler often cited HBO's prestigious brand, his relationships in the industry and the network's thoughtful approach to marketing shows as his leverage over new competitors like Netflix. It turns out those assets were only a temporary bulwark.

Elsewhere in the Market 


Mark Zuckerberg moves on the cryptocurrency space (NYT)


Susan Wojcicki puts the kibosh on predator comments (Verge)


Stephen Cooper seeks a stake in a Saudi record label (WSJ)


Jon Steinberg plans to bring Cheddar to Magic Leap (Axios)


Brian Williams is once again the talk of the town (Page Six)

What Next: The Weekend. Revisit the Ringer's 100 Best TV Shows of the 21st Century, and you'll find more than a few of them aired on HBO.


See you Monday.


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