Richard Plepler, HBO
I was alarmed and upset when I heard about the departure of CEO Richard Plepler from HBO after over thirty years at Time Warner. Sometimes the most prolific creators are the ones who enable the creatives to do great work. From my understanding Mr. Plepler was one of those people. While I am sure he will land on his feet and do great things, I can’t help but wonder if the network that has provided me so much joy will have as wonderful of a future under AT&T. They want more content, but what about great content? Below is an article on Richard’s departure from Vanity Fair for those of you less attuned to the media landscape:
BO’s highly anticipated Michael Jackson documentary is on tap this weekend. The final season of Game of Thrones kicks off in April. New episodes of last year’s breakout hit Succession are currently filming. But when each of these premieres, the man who has been the creative genius behind HBO for much of its golden age will no longer be in charge.
Richard Plepler, HBO’s highly regarded C.E.O. since 2013, and one of the most influential executives in the entertainment industry, made a stunning announcement on Thursday evening that he is leaving the premium cable channel after a decorated nearly 28-year career. “Hard as it is to think about leaving the company I love, and the people I love in it, it is the right time for me to do so,” Plepler wrote in an e-mail to employees. “In the past weeks, I’ve thought a lot about the incredible journey of this company in the nearly 28 years that I have been blessed to be here. It’s a journey of great pride and accomplishment because so many of you, and many others before us, have made HBO a cultural and business phenomenon. . . . It has been the great joy of my professional life to share this ride with you over these many years. And the great honor of my professional life to be your C.E.O.”
Plepler’s announcement comes just days after HBO’s parent company, AT&T, prevailed in an appeals court decision related to the Justice Department’s failure last year to block AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner, which is now called WarnerMedia. His e-mail also landed in the wake of reports earlier this week that WarnerMedia has been in talks with former NBC Entertainment boss Bob Greenblatt about a potential role that could involve overseeing all of the company’s creative content, which also includes programming from TBS, TNT, Cartoon Network, and other channels within the Turner Broadcasting portfolio.
Three sources with knowledge of how Plepler’s exit went down said that it preceded, and was unrelated to, the Greenblatt discussions. One of them said it’s been “in the works for some time.” Another told me that Plepler had a conversation with WarnerMedia C.E.O. John Stankey “within the last couple of weeks.”
Ever since AT&T struck an $85 billion deal to acquire the company formerly known as Time Warner, there have been questions about whether the media and entertainment empire’s creative community would continue to have the same independence and latitude under AT&T’s leadership that it enjoyed under Time Warner C.E.O. Jeff Bewkes. For Plepler, apparently, that autonomy had waned. “A lot of the independence he enjoyed for six years as C.E.O. was curtailed under this leadership,” one of the sources with knowledge of his thinking told me. “Richard was used to operating a certain way, and this became a situation where it was no longer really tenable for him to stay. It wasn’t a personality clash, or about a deep division in strategy. He’d just hit a point in his career where he wanted to enjoy a level of autonomy that he no longer had.” Representatives for HBO and WarnerMedia declined to comment.
As for the reaction among WarnerMedia employees and Time Warner alumni, one former executive said, “Some people saw it coming, some people are shocked beyond comprehension.” Adding to the shock were also reports on Thursday night that Turner president David Levy is on his way out, too. “This completes the dismantling of Time Warner,” the former executive added.
Plepler’s departure is happening at the same time that WarnerMedia is gearing up to launch an HBO-centric direct-to-consumer service that will be AT&T’s weapon in the streaming wars. As the traditional cable model continues to fall away, HBO and just about everyone else (Netflix, Disney, Comcast, Hulu, and whatever happens to a Shari Redstone-ified CBS and Viacom arranged marriage) are in a heated battle for TV viewers and their subscription dollars. Netflix currently dominates the space, and Plepler’s mission under AT&T was to ramp up HBO’s output without watering down the channel’s hit-making mojo and prestige appeal. There’s no reason they can’t still increase their programming hours without Plepler, but the hit-making aspect might be trickier, especially if any other executives end up following him out the door. “It’s bad news for AT&T, which will own the brand but not the talent” an HBO insider said. “Good luck competing with Netflix, Disney, and Apple.”
Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, who developed the series over four years on Plepler’s watch, told me via e-mail last year that “HBO was the only place where a show like this was even remotely conceivable. There were one or two other cable networks that might’ve given it a shot, but it would have collapsed under its own weight at any of these places by the second season, if not sooner.”
David Simon, creator of The Wire and The Deuce, recalled pitching two very different ideas to Plepler—one a true story about federal housing policy and the other a fictional series about prostitution. Plepler chose the former, resulting in 2015’s Show Me a Hero. “At any other network, if you brought them the sex show, the boss jumps up and goes, ‘You got my attention!’ Whereas at HBO, the boss jumped up and went, ‘What about that political pilot?’” Simon said. “It kind of made me love him more.”
In his memo to the staff, Plepler said, “In the past weeks, I’ve thought a lot about the incredible journey of this company in the nearly 28 years that I have been blessed to be here. It’s a journey of great pride and accomplishment because so many of you, and many others before us, have made HBO a cultural and business phenomenon. Thanks to all of you, we are today churning on all cylinders both creatively and as a business. Thanks to all of you, I can move on to the next chapter of my life knowing that the best team in the industry remains here to carry on our continued progress and success. As I have said before, this is the team of teams.”
Plepler was born to a Jewish family, the eldest of two brothers and raised in Manchester, Connecticut. His parents were active in Democratic politics. His father was a trial lawyer. He graduated from Franklin & Marshall College.
Plepler studied government in college and then moved to Washington in 1981 and worked for Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd.
Plepler later moved to New York City in 1984 where he opened a public relations firm and produced a series of interviews for The Atlantic magazine and a documentary on Israel and the Palestinian conflict. In 2007, he was appointed as co-president of HBO with Michael Lombardo during which HBO released Game of Thrones, True Blood, Boardwalk Empire, and The Newsroom and Strike Back.
Plepler initially joined Time Warner in 1992. In 2013, he was appointed as the chairman and CEO of HBO.
On February 28, 2019, it was announced that Plepler was leaving HBO.