×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Richard Plepler’s Departure From HBO Marks the End of a Defining TV Era (Column)

Richard Plepler’s move Thursday signaling his departure as HBO chairman marks the end of what is likely the single most consequential run in the TV industry — and a definitive break with HBO’s history as the cable network moves into its new era as a property of AT&T.

Plepler, after all, is the living institutional memory of his company in an industry where executives switch in and out frequently. He had been with HBO since 1992 — back when it was better known for “Tales from the Crypt” and wrestling than for serious adult programming. During his time rising in HBO’s ranks, the network made assertive steps towards becoming the definitive purveyor of sharp, urbane cable programming, making its Sunday night (home to “The Sopranos,” “Sex and the City,” and “Six Feet Under”) the industry’s gold standard.

There’s little precedent for a run of success as prolonged as HBO’s — and no intuitive reason it needed to go on. When Plepler took over as co-president of the network in 2007, the cabler was entering a vexed period; news of his elevation occurred days before the airing of the final episode of “The Sopranos,” after which various new programs failed to connect. (The airing of surfer noir “John from Cincinnati” as the lead-out to “The Sopranos” finale sums up a challenging period.) Pursued by competitors including a vivified Showtime, HBO’s primacy was fading.

With “Game of Thrones” and “Veep” — a drama and a comedy that went on to win multiple times in their respective top Emmy fields, and both series greenlit by Plepler — as well as with “Girls,” “Westworld,” and “Succession,” all series that ride the zeitgeist but all of which fit within HBO’s brand identity, the network has made a roaring return this decade. And, since Plepler took over as chairman and CEO in 2013, HBO has made several canny moves, including unbundling its programming from cable packages, through the subscription service HBO Now, in order to accommodate younger fans of “Thrones” and “Last Week Tonight.” This change seemed unthinkable until it happened — now, “Game of Thrones’s” status as HBO’s most successful show ever (and the grist for a possibly equally long-running spinoff) is fueled in part by young people whom HBO meets where they are. Even against streaming competitors whose offerings are more vast, HBO punches above weight, because its fewer shows tend to cut through TV’s clutter and noise. Some do end up lost in the way many streaming shows do — but not many.

What comes next for a network whose reputation is built on its (and Plepler’s) curatorial eye? AT&T has made no secret of its desire to scale HBO’s success to multiple nights a week and vastly more programming, even though the limited nature of HBO’s offerings is not just a twee preference but something like the point of it all. (After a certain number of wildly off pitches, after all, you lose the customer’s trust, as nearly happened in HBO’s late-2000s near-miss-death-spiral.) And reporting indicates they are bringing in Robert Greenblatt — late of NBC but formerly an HBO competitor as the head of Showtime — to oversee HBO, Turner, and the planned WarnerMedia streaming service. Showtime under Greenblatt created a certain template of show — character-driven melodrama with a lurid secret at its center, from “Dexter” to “Nurse Jackie” to “Weeds” to “The Big C” — with a rigorous efficiency that looks little like HBO’s often meandering development process. One wonders if AT&T would have put up with the famously long and arduous process of reshoots that led to the ultimately successful “Game of Thrones” pilot.

With Plepler, HBO is losing a tie to its earliest days. But given that those early days were ones of carefully chosen programming that made something as simple as a cable network feel like a must-have luxury product, cutting those ties may be exactly what a corporation hungry for content and indifferent to programming wants.

More TV

  • Michael Portillo Making ‘The Trouble With

    Michael Portillo Making ‘The Trouble With the Tory Party’ For Viacom’s Channel 5

    On the day that British Prime Minister Theresa May announced her resignation plans, a prominent former politician has unveiled a two-part documentary about the troubles faced by her Conservative party. Michael Portillo is a former senior Conservative politician and leadership candidate. As the starting gun is sounded on a fresh leadership race, his documentary “Portillo: [...]

  • Nickelodeon, Starzplay, Globo-Warner Bros., BBC And

    International TV Newswire: Nick News, Apple Adds Starzplay, Globo Keeps Warner Bros.

    This week’s International TV Newswire sees Nickelodeon’s influence grow in Mexico, Navratilova host a trans-athlete debate for the BBC, Globo and Warner Bros. extend in Brazil, Apple pick up Starzplay and HBO profile a polemical Spanish soccer legend. Nickelodeon Signs Mexican Influencer Nickelodeon Latin America has signed an exclusive global representation deal with popular Mexican [...]

  • Singer Adam Levine performs with Maroon

    Adam Levine Leaves 'The Voice' After 16 Seasons

    After 16 seasons on “The Voice,” Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine will not be returning to a coach’s chair when the NBC singing competition series begins its 17th edition in the fall. Levine has been a coach on the show since its inception in 2011. He will be replaced next season by Gwen Stefani. “Voice” [...]

  • Vis-a-Vis Mediapro

    Fox's Hit Spanish Drama 'Locked Up' Gets Spinoff, Launching 2020

    Fox Network Groups in Spain and Globomedia, the Barcelona-based parent company of production house The Mediapro Studio, have announced a spinoff to Mediapro’s flagship Catalan series “Vis a Vis” (“Locked Up”). Set to air on Fox networks in 2020, “Vis a Vis: El Oasis” will close the circle on narratives from the original series, bringing [...]

  • ‘Peaky Blinders’ Scribe Bringing SAS Special

    ‘Peaky Blinders’ Scribe Bringing Special Forces Story ‘SAS: Rogue Heroes’ to TV

    Steven Knight is adapting “SAS: Rogue Heroes,” bringing the story of the elite British special forces unit to TV. Knight has enjoyed enormous success with his series “Peaky Blinders,” and also penned “Taboo” and the feature films “Locke” and “Eastern Promises.” His SAS series will be based on Ben Macintyre’s best-selling non-fiction book “SAS: Rogue [...]

  • ‘Riviera’ Renewed for Season 3 at

    ‘Riviera’ With Julia Stiles Renewed for Season 3 at Sky

    Sky has ordered a third season of “Riviera” with filming starting this fall. Julia Stiles will return as Georgina Clios and the action is set to move from France’s Cote d’Azur to an international stage. Stiles will also exec produce the new season, which was announced soon after season two launched on U.K. pay-TV platform [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content