John Stankey, the longtime AT&T executive tapped following that company’s acquisition of Time Warner to lead the newly acquired media portfolio as head of Warner Media, talked on an earnings call Tuesday about AT&T’s intentions to invest more in HBO’s programming. The spending increase is part of nascent plans to better position HBO as a competitor to other direct-to-consumer entertainment services such as Netflix and Amazon.
A day later, HBO kicked off the Television Critics Association’s summer press tour. HBO programming president Casey Bloys spoke there with Variety about how the acquisition by AT&T will affect the pay cabler.
If you’re going to scale up the size of your programming, are you also going to have to grow the size of the organization?
Let me just back up to before the question. I just want to just say again, the need for more programming is something we’ve been very aware of since before AT&T. This is something that Richard [Plepler, HBO chief executive] has been talking about for years. This did not just hit us like a thunderbolt out of the blue. But we’re very excited that John and AT&T have come along talking about investing in HBO. It’s been a long time since anyone has been talking about giving us money as opposed to HBO sending its money uptown to Time Warner. What we’re having conversations about now is what’s the right level of programming for us to be able to keep quality control in place and have a hands-on approach. The number one thing is that showrunners feel that they are being taken care of, that this show is a priority for us, that the entire organization is focused on launching their show and supporting their show. If we get to a level where that is not happening, that will be a problem.
So will you need to add people and internal resources?
It is a logical assumption that if we’re going to be doing more, we’re probably going to need more executives. But again, I want to make sure it’s at a level that there’s not a show being developed or produced that I’m not aware of. I don’t want to lose that handmade approach.
Netflix and Amazon try to be all things to all people. Could you all get to that point?
No. Our brand stands for excellence in programming. There is an implicit promise that when a subscriber turns on HBO, of quality. If that changes, we have a problem. So I don’t want to get into the volume business where we’ve lost that. I do believe that we can do more and keep that brand as our north star and not lose what it stands for.
Are there types of shows that you’re not doing now that you could be doing?
No, in the conversations Richard and I have been having, and with John, what we’ve been talking about is doing more of what we do. When I said there’s no plans to dilute the HBO brand, there’s no plans to get into reality programming or something like that. It’s doing more of what we do.
AT&T has talked about putting Warner intellectual property on mobile in short form. [AT&T CEO] Randall Stephenson talked about doing “Game of Thrones” shorts …
He was joking about that.
That joke aside, have there been conversations about short-form content?
John has been very supportive with Richard, with me, in the conversations about doing more of what we do. They’ve said they don’t want to be involved in programming decisions. They seem adamant about that. In terms of short-form programming, if that makes sense for a larger platform for them, that may be. But we’ve had no discussions about HBO doing anything other than what we’ve historically done, just being funded to the point where we can do more of it.
“Sesame Street” was big investment for you a couple years ago, and you all are doing “Esme & Roy” with Sesame Workshop. Do you envision building out that kids programming vertical?
That is a questions that I think will take some time to answer, and part of that is investment from AT&T. “Sesame Street” has done very well for us. I think it’s an iconic brand that meshes well with HBO, and they have “Esme & Roy” and some other things that they’ve done. But to do more kids programming, you can’t just do one or two shows. You have to jump in. That is a larger discussion about resources and where you want to deploy them.
What will the investment from AT&T look like? Is it going to be AT&T saying, ‘Okay, here’s more money,’ then you greenlight eight new shows?
I don’t know. Again, we’re talking about what the right level. This is something Richard has been planning. But to have someone really wanting to invest in us — this is new territory for us to not have to send a majority of our profits to another corporate entity. It’s exciting. How that looks, I don’t know, because I’ve never been in a company where a corporate parent said, “Here’s some money!” It’s very rare.
How do you picture AT&T impacting the culture of HBO?
This is something they’ve talked a lot about and we’ve thought a lot about. I don’t think that they have interest in coming in and changing our culture. They’ve been vocal about that. We’ve always been, even with Time Warner, kind of off doing our thing in Santa Monica. Richard’s been very, very protective of our ability to do what we do. I honestly don’t see that changing. There’s always anxiety whenever there’s a change — a merger, acquisition, what have you. So I understand there’s going to be anxiety. I don’t see our day to day life changing. But who knows what the future holds. We survived AOL
What do you make of these nine-figure showrunner deals?
I think for places that are into high-volume business, I think it makes perfect sense. I’ve said this before, Shonda [Rhimes] and Ryan are rare in that they are prolific creators. If you’re a place that is looking to get volume quickly, those deals make sense. Even with doing more programming, I don’t see us being able to support that level of output.
But as you get this increased investment in the parent company, do you foresee more money being spent on growing your stable of creators?
To some extent, when you’re doing more original programming, more overall deals come. The creator will get an overall deal. We have an overall deal with David Simon, and a lot of things have come from that. So getting into business with Mischa Green, Issa Rae, Joss Whedon, I’m assuming that if we’re lucky and we do our job well, we’ll get a great show, and these are creative people that have other ideas. But we kind of take a little bit more of a show approach. I’d rather focus on the project that makes sense for us, but we have overall deals with producers, and have and will continue to have. But if the question is are we on the hunt for a Shonda- or Ryan-like deal, probably not. Because I think that level of volume is just still not going to make sense for us.