Ex-HBO Boss Inks 5-Year Apple TV+ Production Deal

In a move to jumpstart its branded subscription streaming video service, Apple has reportedly signed a five-year production deal with Richard Plepler, former CEO of HBO.

Under the deal ironed out by Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht, Apple’s joint heads of video, Plepler’s company, Eden Productions, will create original series, movies and documentaries for Apple TV+. The $4.99 service launched Nov. 2, 2019, with fewer than a dozen original programs.

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“I’m excited to work with Zack, Jamie and the standout team at Apple who have been deeply supportive of my vision for Eden from day one,” Plepler said in a statement. “The shows that Zack and Jamie produced, ‘The Crown’ and ‘Breaking Bad,’ are among those I most admired. Apple is one of the most creative companies in the world, and the perfect home for my new production company and next chapter.”

Plepler, who helped launched subscription streaming video platform HBO Now in 2015, ran HBO for 28 years — a career that saw the premium channel produce myriad high-profile shows, including “The Wire,” “The Sopranos,” “True Detective,” “Game of Thrones,” “Silicon Valley,” “Oz,” “Sharp Objects,” “Westworld,” “Boardwalk Empire,” “Big Love,” “The Larry Sanders Show,” “Sex and the City,” “Veep,” “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver,” “Chernobyl,” “Band of Brothers,” “Barry” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” among others.

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Plepler stepped down from his position shortly after AT&T closed its acquisition of Time Warner, creating WarnerMedia, headed by John Stankey.

HBO Boss Richard Plepler Departs

Longtime HBO executive Richard Plepler is leaving the pay-TV channel, following a series of management changes underway at WarnerMedia that reportedly include bringing in former NBC Universal executive Bob Greenblatt as a senior executive reporting to CEO John Stankey.

Plepler, who joined HBO in 1992, helped greenlight myriad hits for the platform, including “Game of Thrones,” “True Detective,” “Veep” and “True Blood.” He also oversaw the launch of HBO Now, the standalone subscription streaming service.

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“Hard as it is to think about leaving the company I love, and the people I love in it, it is the right time for me to do so,” Plepler wrote in a memo to staff as reported by Variety. “In the past weeks, I’ve thought a lot about the incredible journey of this company in the nearly 28 years that I have been blessed to be here. It’s a journey of great pride and accomplishment because so many of you, and many others before us, have made HBO a cultural and business phenomenon.”

Plepler’s departure comes 48 hours after a federal appeals court upheld AT&T’s $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner. It also comes a day after AT&T CFO John Stephens told an investor group that the telecom’s senior management did not wish to upend the culture at the entertainment unit that includes HBO, Warner Bros. and Turner with further personnel changes.

“They [had] a CFO [Howard Averill] and we have a CFO. Those kinds of head-counting synergies have been achieved,” Stephens said.

Of course, the handwriting was on the wall ever since AT&T first closed the acquisition last summer. Stankey, in a town hall meeting with employees and Plepler, strongly intimated that the status quo at HBO would not continue.

The executive said he sought to make HBO programming habitual in a market driven by portable devices that capture consumer attention “every 15 minutes.”

“It’s going to be a tough year,” Stankey said at the time. “It’s going to be a lot of work to alter and change direction a little bit.”

 

Wither HBO Now?

With WarnerMedia launching a branded subscription streaming video platform next year that will incorporate original and catalog content from HBO, Warner Bros. and Turner, in addition to third-party providers, the question arises: What will become of standalone SVOD service HBO Now?

Launched in 2014, HBO Now topped 5 million subscribers earlier this year. WarnerMedia is wrapping much of its unnamed OTT product around the HBO brand, with tiers of service ranging from studio movies to original series such as “Game of Thrones” and “Westworld,” among others.

Speaking Dec. 4 at the UBS 46th Annual Global Media and Communications confab in New York, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson reiterated that the WarnerMedia streaming platform would not be another Netflix — focusing instead on Warner, HBO and Turner content.

“The goal of [CEO] John Stankey and WarnerMedia is not to create a direct-to-consumer product that rivals Netflix in terms of being a warehouse of content,” he said, adding that traditional pay-TV business models distributing wholesale content are old-school.

“Those businesses are getting disrupted aggressively,” Stephenson said.

The executive said the market needs an OTT product that “can achieve a very high penetration of [WarnerMedia] content with audiences.”

And HBO — via HBO Now — has its foot in the door.

“All media companies are coming to grips with the reality to better establish a direct relationship with [their] audiences,” Stephenson said. And with more than 140 million pay-TV subscribers globally, HBO resonates.

“I once compared Netflix to Walmart — not derogatorily … but when I’m shopping [and] I need something … I go to Walmart,” Stephenson said. “Well, if you’re looking for video content, regardless what it is, people will go to Netflix because it is just a warehouse. And it’s an impressive warehouse. That is not our ambition.”

Stephenson said management recognizes the need to ramp up original content spending at HBO — infusing the platform with year-long new offerings in addition to platform investment.

“[HBO boss] Richard Plepler is pretty excited,” Stephenson said. “He knows how to put together programming that will attract audiences. We’re very confident we’re going to have an HBO product that’s more fulsome.”

With WarnerMedia representing 17% of AT&T’s profitability, Stephenson said Warner Bros. remains a significant creator of TV content — including producing 70 scripted TV series in the past year to third parties including Netflix.

The executive mentioned Netflix had resigned license rights to Warner Bros.’ venerable sitcom “Friends” on a non-exclusive basis.

“That means ‘Friends’ can go onto our platform as well,” Stephenson said.

“We think we have enough IP and capability we can put together a product that will be very attractive,” he said. “It’s not a pervasive library of content warehouse like Netflix, but we think it is a very impressive product that will achieve very high penetration. Expectations are very high for this product.”

WarnerMedia Boss: HBO Has to Up its Game

NEWS ANALYSIS — The status-quo at HBO apparently isn’t good enough for the new boss at WarnerMedia — AT&T’s corporate shell comprising Turner, Warner Bros. and HBO following its $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner.

The award-winning premium network behind “Game of Thrones,” “Big Little Lies,” and “Westworld,” has to increase “hours of engagement,” John Stankey, who replaced Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes at WarnerMedia, reportedly told a company townhall meeting with HBO CEO Richard Plepler last month following the merger.

As reported by the New York Times, Stankey wants HBO programming to become habitual in a consumer market he says is driven by portable devices that capture their attention “every 15 minutes.”

“It’s going to be a tough year,” Stankey said. “It’s going to be a lot of work to alter and change direction a little bit.”

Tough words to hear for a signature network that has 40 million domestic subscribers (nearly 150 million globally) and was often lauded by Bewkes (a former boss at HBO) during his fiscal calls.

Specifically, Stankey believes increased consumer interaction with programming will generate data, which he says enables better monetization of content and is “very important to play in tomorrow’s world.”

With HBO spending about $2 billion on original content — a quarter what Netflix is spending — Stankey hinted operating budgets could be increasing.

He said HBO would have to transform from a boutique operation to generating content that has wider appeal.

“We need hours a day,” Stankey said. “It’s not hours a week, and it’s not hours a month. We need hours a day.”

Indeed, HBO Now, the standalone $15 monthly SVOD service, reportedly has about 5 million subscribers — less than 10% of Netflix’s domestic sub base.

Stankey told employees they should be happy AT&T and not another media company such as Fox or Disney acquired Time Warner due to the lack of job overlap. At the same time, he said HBO has to make money at “the end of the day.”

“We do that,” interjected Plepler, according to the Times. “Just not enough,” responded Stankey.

A curious statement, indeed, considering HBO generated about $6 billion in operating profit in 2017.

Plepler deftly diffused the situation saying HBO did as well as it could with the hand it was dealt at Time Warner.

“And we well understand that that is not going to be sustainable going forward,” he said.