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Hollywood is paying close attention to what HBO’s new owners will do with the network now that Richard Plepler’s long run of hits, awards and acclaim is coming to a close.
“HBO is the gold standard. I hope they stick with quality not quantity,” said Judd Apatow, whose shows “Girls” and “Crashing” are among HBO’s critical darlings. “Their choices over the next few days and weeks will tell us a lot about the direction they are choosing to go in.”
Plelper announced Thursday that he will exit the network where he greenlit successes like “Veep” and “Game of Thrones.” HBO is now the property of AT&T, overseen by WarnerMedia CEO John Stankey, who has called on HBO to substantially increase subscriptions and the amount of time that viewers spend watching.
That sounds like a reversal of Plepler’s strategy, which emphasized elevated, prestige programming with A-list talent that towered over the “Peak TV” rabble.
“Richard was ‘Mr. Prestige.’ And I think it’s hard to duplicate that,” said Sheila Nevins, a 39-year veteran of HBO who ran the company’s documentary division from 2004 to 2018.
“Richard is exceptionally ethical, exceptionally careful and interested in, he always says to me, ‘nudging the world.’ And I’m not so sure that commerce and nudging the world go together,” she told TheWrap. “But we’ll see, won’t we?”
Alec Berg, an executive producer of HBO’s “Silicon Valley” and executive producer and co-creator of “Barry,” said Plepler was “an incredible fan and supporter” of both shows from the beginning.
“No showrunner could have asked for more from an executive at their network or studio. I cannot imagine having a better ally or advocate,” Berg said in a statement to TheWrap. “I will miss him dearly and wish him all the best.”
Plepler was part of HBO in the late 1990s when “The Sopranos” dramatically expanded possibilities and expectations for television. He became co-president of HBO in 2007.
“I put him up there with Grant Tinker at NBC in the 1980s, Fred Silverman at CBS and then NBC at the 1970s, as one of the executives that really had a significant impact on some of the best stuff we saw on television in that period,” said Robert Thompson, trustee professor of Television and Popular Culture at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.
Plepler exits in the same year that “Veep” and “Game of Thrones” will end. The shows brought many Emmys to HBO, and “Game of Thrones” drove subscriptions and broke ratings records.
Last month, David Levine, a key Plepler deputy, departed as co-head of drama, landing as the head of TV for Anonymous Content.
Plepler exited soon after news broke that Stankey was talking with former NBC chief Bob Greenblatt about leading HBO and Turner, which would be merged under the plan.
“People have been trickling out,” said Todd Klein, a partner at the venture capital firm Revolution Growth. “That layer of folks have started to look for other places, and when it became clear that Plepler was going to have a boss — a real boss — clearly the writing was on the wall at that point.”
AT&T took over Time Warner, which owned HBO and Turner, last year, and HBO, Turner and Warner Bros. came under the umbrella of a conglomerate called WarnerMedia.
Plepler enjoyed a strong amount of autonomy under Time Warner’s ownership, but Stankey’s initial town hall, as reported in the New York Times, included calls for HBO to make more money and get viewers to watch for several hours a day.
Greenblatt’s success at NBC, and his work with Showtime, which launched “Weeds,” “Dexter” and “Nurse Jackie” during his tenure, has inspired hope that HBO won’t turn into a content factory on his watch.
One former colleague of Greenblatt’s told TheWrap that he would seek quality over broad-based shows. Greenblatt signed off, for example, on NBC executive Jen Salke’s support for the critical and ratings hit “This Is Us.”
“He is very niche in his tastes… not mainstream in his tastes,” the person said.
Klein agreed that Greenblatt “going back to his Showtime days, has tremendous impact on increasing the quality and prestige” of programming.
Thompson said he has heard speculation that “the age of HBO is over, it’s never going do any more good programs, we should mourn the passing of this great era.” But he doesn’t believe it.
“I don’t think necessarily that the departure of one executive means the complete and total collapse of the artistic integrity — or even that a change in the business model means that,” he said.
Also, he notes, more content doesn’t guarantee less quality.
Though Netflix is known for its high quantity of programs, last year it also broke HBO’s 17-year-long streak of hauling in the most Emmy nominations. The two top platforms tied for first, with 23 wins each.
With $156 billion in market cap, Netflix has a lot of money to spend. But so does AT&T, which is worth $225 billion. Thompson suspects AT&T will open its checkbook to compete with Netflix in both quality and quantity.
Though its always possible, he noted, that everything could fall apart.
“They could get a bunch of clowns in there running it, and it could be the disaster that so many people are predicting,” he said.
Jennifer Maas contributed to this report