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HBO’s Richard Plepler: ‘We Will Not Be Caught Without the Ability to Pivot’

HBO CEO Richard Plepler talked up the pay TV dynamo’s recent growth and acknowledged that it has to consider the prospect of broadband-only distribution some day during a wide-ranging Q&A Wednesday at the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media and Telecom conference.

Plepler said HBO is playing its “strong hand” in its deals with distribs that ensure it will have flexibility in the future as its broadband add-on HBOGo continues to see usage soar.

“We will not be caught without the ability to pivot should we decide that pivoting is the right thing to do,” Plepler said. “It’s a sin to leave money on the table.”

But he emphasized that at present, HBO is on a roll and the traditional model is working well for it. In 2013, HBO had its best all-around year in 17 years with subscriber gains of 2 million. “Game of Thrones” has surpassed “The Sopranos” as the cabler’s most-watched series with an average of 14 million viewers across all platforms.

The gains HBO logged in 2013 show that it is possible to grow the pay TV universe, he asserted. Plepler, who comes from a political background, said that HBO execs still see great growth potential in the 70 million or so “undecided” TV homes in the U.S.

He called HBOGo “a beautiful product” that has been a huge factor in drawing new subscribers and retaining existing subs. He promised even more upgrades and expanded offerings in the coming year or so.

“It’s as if we’ve built a beautiful BMW 3 series and now we’re building a 750 series,” he said.

Plepler touted HBO’s advantage over its traditional pay TV competition in its supply of theatrical movies, and noted that some 78% of all HBO viewing is devoted to theatrical pics. Shoring up long-term output deals with Universal, Fox, Summit Entertainment and its Warner Bros. sibling was a top priority during the past few years.

“The delta between us and the competition on movies is bigger than it has ever been,” he said.

International expansion has also been a key focus. With its owned channels and licensed programming, HBO reaches about 130 million subscribers in virtually every country in the world. That number becomes important when it comes to amortizing the cost of high-end original series.

And the prospects for continued international gains are tremendous, Plepler said. Latin America is HBO’s largest overseas territory, and to date subscription TV services are available in only about 20% of the homes in that region’s biggest market, Brazil. So the upside in the future is promising, he said.

HBO is also investing more in localized production for key overseas markets, reaching 140 hours last year.

Plepler made a point of talking up all of the non-series programming that HBO offers subscribers, notably sports and documentary fare. But if he needed a reminder about HBO’s pervasive influence in pop culture, he got it with the first question from the crowd of buttoned-down financial types.

“Who is the Yellow King?”

Alas, no “True Detective” spoilers tumbled out of Plepler’s mouth in advance of Sunday’s finale. HBO’s CEO knows what brings home the bacon, after all.

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