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HBO Chief Richard Plepler Talks Growth Targets and Peak TV Competition at Variety Summit

HBO chief Richard Plepler has set his sights on a big target: 50%.

Speaking at Variety‘s Ent and Tech conference in New York, Plepler said Friday his goal is to drive HBO into as many as half of U.S. pay TV households. The company at present reaches about one-third of those 100 million-plus homes.

“We think there’s a lot of growth left. We’re going to attack it,” Plepler told Variety co-editor-in-chief Andrew Wallenstein during his keynote conversation at the Mandarin Oriental hotel.

Plepler’s ambition is bolstered by the fact that HBO saw strong subscriber and revenue growth last year. Moreover, some 35% of the total growth in HBO’s 46-year history has come during the past five years. On HBO’s top performing distribution partners, the service is already near the 50% penetration mark. The advent of the standalone HBO Now streaming services and the entry of virtual MVPDs a la Hulu and YouTube have also been factors in HBO’s spurt.

When questioned about whether the onslaught from Netflix, Amazon, and other competitors with deep pockets would present speedbumps for HBO’s growth, Plepler responded that the pay TV marketplace is not a zero-sum game.

“Our job is to play our game to our fullest capacity,” Plepler said. “Our job is to make the right bets (on shows). This is not binary. It doesn’t mean there isn’t going to be a good show on Netflix or good show on Amazon. None of them has interfered with our growth. The proof is in the pudding. Despite the intensity of this competition, we grew more last year than at any time in our history.”

The chase for great projects and top talent is fierce, Plepler conceded, but HBO has no shortage of A-listers waiting in its lobby on any given day.

“The line at our door in May 2018 is even bigger than the line” back in 2007, Plepler said. “We have more programming coming next year than in any time in our history.”

Plepler declined to comment on the status of the legal battle that has enveloped HBO parent company Time Warner as it tries to complete its merger with telco giant AT&T. The $85.4 billion deal sparked an anti-trust lawsuit from the Justice Department. The seven-week trial concluded this week in Washington, D.C. and a ruling is expected on June 12.

Plepler reiterated that the compelling aspect of the AT&T-Time Warner union from his perspective was the potential to reach AT&T’s 120 million customer base and glean insights into consumer behavior as it relates to watching TV via mobile platforms and AT&T’s DirecTV.

“The more information we have, the better we can serve the consumer,” Plepler said.

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