HBO once boldly proclaimed to America “It’s Not TV — It’s HBO.” A 2019 spin on that slogan might adjust it to “Handcrafted HBO.”
On the heels of a corporate takeover by AT&T and management upheaval with the departure of Richard Plepler and arrival of Bob Grenblatt, the new regime at HBO has emerged with a simple message for the creative community: Come to us if you want the artisanal television experience.
Greenblatt, who signed on last month as WarnerMedia Entertainment chairman, and HBO programming chief Casey Bloys outlined their plans for moving on after the end of “Game of Thrones,” which premiered began its six-episode final season on Sunday, in an April 11 interview with Variety. The HBO leaders offered their thoughts on the programming marketplace on the heels of high-wattage content unveilings from Disney last week and Apple late last month.
Greenblatt, the former entertainment chief for Showtime and NBC, said HBO’s pitch to the creative community isn’t much changed despite the tidal wave of new competition from streaming outlets and other cablers. HBO prides itself on being a haven for creators, most of the time. That’s a contrast to its primary competitive target, Netflix, which is facing increasing concern among creatives that new shows can be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of content on the platform.
HBO also can’t possibly catch up with Netflix’s $8 billion-plus original content budget. The original pay TV powerhouse has received a boost in resources thanks to the AT&T takeover of the former Time Warner, but HBO as it stands can only absorb so much more volume. “We don’t have the Netflix business model and we never will,” Greenblatt said.
HBO already had already been on a diversification push during the past decade to expand its reach in documentary, sports, lifestyle, news and foreign-language programming.
“I do recognize that we’re in a crazy time of volume and speed. We have to increase the volume a little bit, but we want to do it in a really thoughtful way that continues to draft off the reputation this company has had for years,” Greenblatt said. “We make things thoughtfully and by hand. We give writers and producers an experience that no one else can give them.”
Bloys said the incessant question he’s received over the past year about how HBO will survive without its “Game of Thrones”-level global juggernaut misses the mark.
“I don’t think there is going to be a next ‘Game of Thrones,’“ Bloys said.
“GoT” was likely to be a once-in-a-generation show for the paybox. The focus now is on offering a menu of programming so distinctive as to keep subscribers paying $15 a month. Bloys points to the range of audiences targeted in original series productions, ranging from the teen drama “Euphoria” to Damon Lindelof’s take on the comic-based “Watchmen” franchise to Tom Hooper’s adaptation of Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy to a new comedy, “The Righteous Gemstones” evangelical spoof, hailing from the raunch-com team of Danny McBride, Jody Hill and David Gordon Green.
Bloys said HBO had realized the benefit of the AT&T takeover of Time Warner through the promised investment in HBO’s programming at a time of cut-throat competition in the global streaming race. But HBO is still focused on a selective breed of show.
“We’re doing more than we ever have before,” Bloys said. “But we’re not doing shows we wouldn’t have done before. We’re not adding things just to get to a certain number of hours of programming.”
Greenblatt said he had no intention of instituting a major shift in the creative direction of HBO’s programming. He emphasized what he learned about HBO’s unique culture through his experience nearly 20 years ago as an executive producer of the 2001-2005 HBO drama series “Six Feet Under.” Greenblatt said he aims to maintain its reputation for providing a strong foundation for artists to pursue their creative vision.
“We are a curated, hand-wrought business,” Greenblatt says. “There’s no computer putting things together or finding audiences for certain shows to appeal to. It’s done the old-fashioned way, with people. We’re going to increase the volume and the pace of some of our programming but we’ll do it in a very manageable way.”
Greenblatt noted that his challenge ahead at HBO is very different than the rebuilding missions he undertook during his tenure at NBC Entertainment, which ended last fall after seven years, and his mission at Showtime from 2003 to 2010.
“HBO is a beautifully run company. I am thrilled to be part of it now. I’m thrilled to not have to walk in and say ‘Let’s start from scratch. Let’s rebuild the house,’” Greenblatt said. “I want to preserve the same beautiful experience that I had here, albeit on a bit of a grander scale. But there’s not anything that I fundamentally want to change.”
HBO is trying to maintain its gloss as a premium content player even as the influx of new money from streaming outlets bids up the price of top talent. Bloys said even with the raging arms race for talent, HBO isn’t wanting for big-name stars.
To wit, Meryl Streep is set to make a splashy TV drama series debut in June on the second installment of “Big Little Lies.” The rest of HBO’s 2019 and 2020 slate is dotted with boldface industry names including Kate Winslet, Ben Mendelsohn, J.J. Abrams, Armando Iannucci, Jean-Marc Vallee, Joss Whedon, Helen Mirren, Matthew Rhys, Robert Downey Jr., David E. Kelley and Derek Cianfrance. The roster also includes at least one “Game of Thrones” prequel prospect, from writer Jane Goldman and “Thrones” author George R. R. Martin.
But the nature of the development process and the upfront commitments that HBO has to make has definitely been affected by the heightened chase for stars and shows.
“It’s not been hard to attract people to come to HBO,” Bloys said. “Because of the marketplace, we’ve had to go more straight-to-pilot and straight-to-series than we would have five years ago. That can be scary because it doesn’t give you as much time to work on things. Sometimes we have to make production decisions quicker than we normally would. But it’s not a challenge to sit down with someone and say ‘Please come here.’”
Bloys also believes HBO’s traditional week-by-week release schedule for shows makes a difference in a crowded on-demand landscape.
“To not take advantage of all of the people out there writing about TV — to not take advantage of that huge machine week in and week out would be a mistake,” Bloys said. “I think it’s a chance to have shows in the cultural conversation for eight or 10 weeks instead of all in one weekend. Creators really appreciate that we do it that way in a world where a lot of content is getting dumped.”
WarnerMedia plans to add another contender to the fast-transforming pay-TV ecosystem with the launch of its own streaming platform by 2020. HBO will be at the center of the WarnerMedia offering but it will be kept distinct from other content packages assembled from WarnerMedia properties past and present. Greenblatt said that maintaining HBO’s linear channel business remains a priority even as the parent company eyes a global expansion of its on-demand services. Greenblatt noted that HBO’s higher volume of original programming means that the channel is moving beyond Sunday as its primary home for originals with new shows coming to Monday nights.
“As the schedule gets larger it’s important to us to keep the linear network strong on the non-digital front,” Greenblatt said.
But Greenblatt’s charter also includes overseeing content for the streaming service. The R&D that WarnerMedia and AT&T are doing on the technological front will benefit HBO’s online presentation.
“In the next 18 months we want to improve the experience as we get ready to introduce features into HBO Now and the new direct-to-consumer platform we’re building,” Greenblatt said. “All of that is going to help keep the linear network robust and make us more competitive with other streaming platforms.”
Among other programming tidbits the pair discussed:
** Don’t hold your breath for the controversial “Confederate” project to see the light of day. The drama pilot from “Game of Thrones” showrunners David Benioff and D.B Weiss, set in an alternate history where the South seceded after the Civil War. “Confederate” drew fire from critics sight unseen when the concept was unveiled by HBO in 2017. But now Benioff and Weiss have been tapped to write and direct three “Star Wars” movies for Disney. “That was their longtime dream,” Bloys said. “So in 10 years when they’re done with that, maybe they’ll be back.”
** Drama “Westworld” will take a break in 2019 before returning for its third season in 2020. Bloys said he’s not worried about the show losing momentum after a mixed response to season 2 last year. “I don’t feel it lost any buzz. If anything, more people are obsessing over it,” Bloys said.
** HBO’s efforts to mine a spinoff or two from “GoT” are proceeding slowly, by design. The pilot for the Jane Goldman project, toplined by Naomi Watts and set 1000 years before the “GoT” time frame, will be shot by helmer S.J. Clarkson in June. “We’re going to take our time and see how this pilot turns out,” Bloys said. “We are going to be very mindful about whatever we do next. It has to make sense for the franchise.”
** The drama “Euphoria,” a remake of an Israeli hit, is a high priority for HBO this year. Greenblatt said it will “be a departure for HBO in a good way with its bracing look at teenage life.” The series from showrunner Sam Levinson, bows June 16.
** Greenblatt cited the Issa Rae comedy “Insecure” as a prime example of HBO giving a platform to promising newcomers in addition to established stars. “I don’t know where [Rae] came from but HBO put her front and center in a different kind of show in the comedy genre,” Greenblatt said. “Seeing somebody like that come out and thrive on our air is one of the reasons why this is a really exciting time at this company.”
Here is a list of upcoming HBO projects with series or pilot orders:
His Dark Materials
Big Little Lies
Years and Years
Summer of 2014
The Righteous Gemstones
A Black Lady Sketch Show
Catherine the Great
The New Pope
My Brilliant Friend
I Know This Much Is True
Curb Your Enthusiasm
The Plot Against America
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark
Gorilla and the Bird
Mare of Easttown
Contraband (formerly known as Demimonde)
The Time Traveler’s Wife
Untitled Jane Goldman and George R.R. Martin GOT Prequel
(Pictured: Casey Bloys, left; Bob Greenblatt, right)