HBO is looking to go big — and small — with its programming this year.
HBO programming president Casey Bloys spoke with Variety at the Television Critics Assn.’s winter press tour on Friday about company’s increased investment in original programming and its embrace of “intimate” shows alongside blockbusters such as “Game of Thrones” and “Westworld.” Bloys also discussed the competitive landscape for premium TV and how HBO fits into the larger plans for global streaming services at parent company WarnerMedia.
How is the AT&T investment in HBO manifesting?
It’s been very good. In 2019, you’re going to see the most programming we’ve ever done. I think we’re up about 50% in terms of hours. In order to do that, it’s about a two-year lead time. We decided, whether we end up with AT&T or back at Time Warner, we knew that it made sense to do more programming and you need that lead time to get it ready, so we just decided, “All right, let’s commit to and say yes to what we want to say yes to, and hope that wherever we end up, they agree with our decision to do so.”
And the good news is, AT&T very much agreed with the investment. They were very happy, they gave us the resources. So the good news is, 2019 is already at that higher level of programming. Also, what’s good about it is (that) all of this programming is programming that we would’ve done two years ago, five years ago, there’s no difference in type or quality of programming we’re doing — just to do more. That’s what you can do with a couple of years of advance planning — (find) shows that you’re proud of and are indicative of the HBO brand. So that’s what we’ve been doing for the past couple of years.
Were there conversations about specific levels of programming volume with WarnerMedia CEO John Stankey or AT&T?
(HBO CEO) Richard (Plepler) briefed John on what the schedule would look like and the shows, but to their credit, AT&T has not gotten into the weeds of, “You should do more half hours” or (directing programming). They’ve left it to the team. Obviously, everyone feels like in this environment, especially with digital subscriptions becoming so important, you can’t have fallow periods of a schedule. You’ve got to keep subscribers engaged and that’s what we’re doing in 2019 and going forward.
Speaking of digital, how much are Netflix, Amazon and other streamers’ content spending impacting programming decisions at HBO?
The digital subscribers are what is driving it, so that to the extent that Netflix has brought the digital subscriber to the fore, that’s what I think people are responding to. When it’s easier to turn on and turn off, you have to engage people.
What’s your sense of where HBO fits in with WarnerMedia’s plan to launch a streaming platform?
We at HBO are continuing to do what we do with our expanded programming and we will be a part of their service. They’re doing their thing, we’re just continuing to make the HBO brand the best it can be, and hopefully that is an attractive part of a digital offering. So in Santa Monica we’ve been busier than we’ve ever been and we’re just continuing to do our work. I assume they will use our brand in a smart way and build around it.
What happens if there is competition between HBO and another WarnerMedia brand for a project?
Listen, I think in a situation like that, talent usually know where they want to end up.
As HBO scales up the volume of its original programming, are we going to see more shows with “Westworld” or “Game of Thrones”-size budgets?
I would use the last year as a pretty good example. Starting with “Westworld,” “Barry,” “Succession,” “Sharp Objects,” “The Deuce,” “My Brilliant Friend,” “True Detective.” In terms of the scope of programming, the variation in scale, we have genre pieces, we have period pieces, tiny intimate shows like “My Brilliant Friend,” and obviously big giant shows like “Westworld.” That’s what we’re trying to build in ’19 and going forward, is not to become too dependent on one show, like a “Game of Thrones.” But obviously, big tentpole shows would be part of that, small, intimate shows that nobody else would do, which we’ve always done and will continue to do. The important thing is to keep the slate varied and interesting.
Everyone’s expecting HBO to do very well at the Emmys this year. Have you thought about how you’re positioning yourself for the year beyond that?
You know what’s interesting? Remember the year that “Game of Thrones” wasn’t on, and everybody said, “Oh my God, what are you going to do?” And we did just fine. So I’m not that worried about it.
Was scheduling Season 2 of “Big Little Lies” for June part of that calculation?
I would like to say that everything is that calculated. Some of it is (about) what’s best for the schedule, whats best in terms of having shows spread out through the year. Some of it is (about) when the show’s ready. So it’s a little bit of all of that. But let me put it this way: in 2020, if the Academy doesn’t give Meryl Streep an Emmy, then they should all be disbanded. (Laughs.)
We continue to see big talent-producer deals from the likes of Amazon and Netflix to produce TV series. Is HBO looking to increase its level of overall deals?
I think we’ve always had overall deals. We will continue to have them. I think even with the increased volume, we’re just not going to be a volume player at that level. It’s just not what we do. I don’t think that we (would be able to) have the quality control that we want to be reflected in the HBO brand, so to answer your question, I would say, I think we have the right amount of deals for us for the amount of programming we want to make. We’re always talking to people, and we’ve done deals over the last couple of years and continue to do so, but there’s no giant push to sign up people more or less than we’ve done before.