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.