At HBO’s 2018 post-Emmys party in West Hollywood, Richard Plepler, the network’s chairman and C.E.O., orbited the Pacific Design Center like a spinning top of schmooze. One minute he embraced Thandie Newton, whose outstanding-supporting-actress statue for her role in Westworld gleamed beside her on a dining table. The next, he bantered in a booth with Larry David. Behind them, Peter Dinklage, Gwendoline Christie, and other Game of Thrones cast members held court beneath a gargantuan chandelier of writhing snakes, celebrating its win for outstanding drama series. When Plepler popped up on the other side of the bustling throng in a clinch with John Oliver, whose Last Week Tonight had once again nabbed the award for best variety talk series, I began to wonder if HBO’s boss had cloned himself.
The party was the sort of celebrity-packed Emmy-night victory lap that Plepler and his predecessors have presided over for ages. Yet something was different this time. For starters, it was the first ceremony in nearly two decades at which HBO didn’t utterly dominate. Instead, the network that gave birth to Tony Soprano and Carrie Bradshaw, Stringer Bell and Sookie Stackhouse, had tied with Netflix for most wins of the night—23 apiece. And then there was the new table on the ballroom’s edge, the one reserved for John Stankey, the AT&T executive and Warner Media C.E.O. who has overseen the network since the telecom company’s $85 billion acquisition of HBO parent company Time Warner last year. Stankey’s table was a perfect vantage point to survey the kingdom.
And what glory to behold. HBO has reigned over television for a quarter- century now; no other institution is more central to our concept of prestige TV. Its archives contain classics that defined the new golden age of television: The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, The Wire, Sex and the City, Deadwood, Girls, Veep. Over and over, HBO has stretched TV’s formulaic limits and played a key role in television’s usurpation of film’s privileged prominence in the American psyche. More than any other network, HBO elevated TV to its current status as the American storytelling medium of the young century.
So it makes sense that almost as soon as the ink was dry on AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner—which it promptly renamed Warner Media—the telecom giant began to position HBO as the centerpiece of its plans for a direct-to-consumer streaming subscription business: Phase One of a war to ward off deep-pocketed TV upstarts like Netflix, Amazon, and Apple. Although it remains the most profitable and influential boutique network in America, HBO faces a surprisingly unsettled future in 2019. In addition to the Silicon Valley set, established elders like Disney will soon be launching their own streaming services. HBO needs to keep attracting top TV talent in a market that has seen A-list show-runners land nine-figure deals while also preserving its reputation for excellence—all in the year its international mega-hit Game of Thrones comes to an end.
Can HBO’s artisanal approach to developing shows mesh with the quick-results, high-turnover culture of the telecom industry? That’s the idea. “I want more hours of engagement,” Stankey told Plepler at an employee town hall last spring. The discussion—a recording of which was leaked to The New York Times—stoked fears both inside the company and among TV fans that the new owners planned to turn HBO into a content factory, jeopardizing the very things that make the network so alluring to creators and performers. (Game of Thrones was nurtured for four years.) As one television executive told me worriedly at the time, “You can’t turn HBO into a superstore overnight!”
All charm and ease as he darted through the room ego-burnishing the brightest and the best in HBO’s firmament, Plepler surely felt the tension of this high-stakes moment. He is faced with the responsibility of keeping the suits and the shareholders sated, while maintaining HBO’s creative edge as a swarm of rivals take the model it invented and threaten to beat the originators at their own game.
A few months after the Emmy party, sitting poolside at Beverly Hills’ Peninsula hotel with HBO’s programming chief, Casey Bloys, Plepler was reflecting on the panicked reaction to the idea that the network might be spoiled by corporate interference. “What happened was kind of moving,” he told me, clipping his sunglasses onto his crisp white shirt. “The response from serious people was: ‘Do not do that!’ ”
Deeply suntanned and aggressively urbane, the 60-year-old Plepler looks every bit the part of a Hollywood executive, though he’s based in New York and as likely to drop names of East Coast cognoscenti as to trade entertainment gossip. Plepler grew up in Manchester, Connecticut, the son of a trial lawyer he once described as a “Jewish Atticus Finch.” As a young man, he worked as an aide to Democratic senator Christopher Dodd, author of the Family and Medical Leave Act. After a spell as an executive on Time Warner’s corporate communications team and with HBO’s then C.E.O., Jeffrey Bewkes, Plepler was tapped in 2007 to oversee the network’s programming. Drawn to writers and journalists, he fostered a raft of political and literary projects and brought on Tina Brown, Jake Tapper, and Frank Rich as consultants. (Rich remains in the fold as executive producer of Veep and Succession.) His friendly relationship with the press helped spread his legend as a different kind of suit.
David Simon, the former Baltimore Sun reporter who has created more shows for HBO than anyone else, including The Wire and his forthcoming adaptation of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, likes to talk about the time he floated two very different ideas to the network. The first was a limited series based on a true story about segregation and federal housing policy in late-80s Yonkers. The second was a drama series about prostitution and the birth of the pornography industry in 1970s Manhattan. HBO may be notorious for its edgy, titillating content, but 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 says. “It kind of made me love him more.” (Eventually, Plepler let Simon make that series about porn, The Deuce.)
As HBO’s chairman and C.E.O. since 2013, Plepler elevated Bloys to the network’s top creative job three years ago. The pair make an unlikely double act. Plepler is the showman while Bloys—a pale and youthful-looking 47-year-old—comes over as earnest, with a tendency to clasp his hands when getting a point across. Bloys spent many of his 15 years in HBO’s West Coast office shepherding comedy fare such as Veep, Girls, Ballers, Eastbound and Down, Barry, and Insecure before taking the programming reins in May 2016.
“We’re not going to say no to what we want to say yes to.”
Upon his appointment, some in the entertainment world whispered that Bloys didn’t have the experience to oversee HBO’s drama slate, which is key to the network’s future. This signature block has taken on a new urgency lately as HBO is faced with transitioning from its focus on a single night a week for its scripted shows (the big Sunday rollout) to something like the frantic output of its streaming competitors, where there’s no such thing as a schedule, just a dizzying spray of options constantly on tap.
Emilia Clarke on the set of Game of Thrones, 2016.
Thandie Newton and Jonathan Nolan on the Westworld set, 2017.
The network, which had 54 million cable subscribers at the close of 2017, already dipped a toe into the direct-to-consumer game with the four-year-old HBO Now. The app had more than seven million U.S. subscribers at the end of 2018. (Netflix had 58.4 million U.S. subscribers in the third quarter of 2018.) As viewers increasingly ditch their cable boxes, what was once a sideline is becoming the main event. To keep up, HBO will need to accelerate its output, which is why Stankey’s demand for “more hours of engagement” garnered so much alarm. His somewhat more reassuring comment that “you’re going to have to have the latitude, the freedom, and the resources to be able to go about doing what you all do very well” was less widely circulated. Of course, what HBO does well runs the gamut, from the TV equivalent of art projects to documentaries to blockbuster dramas, not all of which have the same level of payoff.
Some within the industry worry that high-minded Plepler will knock heads with the bottom-line-oriented bosses of AT&T; it does seem like a tenuous arranged marriage. On the other hand, AT&T C.E.O. Randall Stephenson has acknowledged the delicacy required to create a turbocharged HBO. “That culture needs to remain, you need to guard that culture with your life,” he has said.
Plepler says it was obvious to all involved that the network would need to increase its spending and generate more hours of programming to keep up with Netflix, as well as with well-funded competitors like Amazon, Hulu, and soon-to-come Apple and Disney+. Time Warner had kept HBO on a tight leash, allowing an estimated $1.5 billion annual budget for original content in 2018—play money when compared with Netflix’s reported $10 to $11 billion. That forced HBO to pass on the very shows and show-runners that put the streamers in the cultural conversation and in direct contention with HBO as the rulers of cinema-quality television.
“ ‘Oh, my God, you had House of Cards?,’ ” Plepler shouts, mimicking the appalled voices of business students he had recently lectured at Columbia University. “It’s a sin, what happened,” he continues more quietly. “We had hunted it. We got it. We had a handshake with David Fincher, were going to shoot a pilot.”
Then Netflix stepped in with a sizable offer to produce two seasons straight off the bat—an extravagant practice once unheard of in TV. It was a bet HBO couldn’t—or wouldn’t—match. HBO also had first crack at Orange Is the New Black and Mad Men. And both Transparent show-runner Jill Soloway and Marvelous Mrs. Maisel creator Amy Sherman-Palladino tried to get a foothold at HBO before landing at Amazon. So, at the start of 2018, Plepler found himself in an enviable position, but also one that will almost inevitably move HBO a degree or two closer to the throwing-spaghetti-against-the-wall upstarts. The network expects to expand to 150 hours of original scripted series and movies over the course of this year, which translates into three hours’ worth of fresh scripted fare for every week of the year. It plans to continue ramping up original programming hours in coming years.
“We’re not going to say no to what we want to say yes to,” Plepler told me.
Still, HBO’s past curatorial choosiness may end up looking like a plus in a world where new shows seem to drop from the sky every minute of the day. It’s estimated that Netflix produced more than 1,000 hours of original content to land its 23 2018 Emmys; HBO’s tally was closer to 450. Some in Hollywood have grown frustrated with the existing streamers’ relative weakness at promotion, as many shows get lost in the shuffle. Whereas “Sunday night on HBO is still an event,” says one entertainment executive. “The world’s going to know the show is launching, and it’s going to live for eight weeks in contemporary culture.”
As Bloys says, “It’s a big leap.”
Bloys is all too aware that increased demand comes as a Thrones-shaped hole in HBO’s schedule is opening, and he has a number of high-profile series in various states of production. There are big genre dramas, including a Game of Thrones prequel, Misha Green and Jordan Peele’s Lovecraft Country, J. J. Abrams’s Demimonde, and Joss Whedon’s The Nevers; limited series like Simon’s The Plot Against America and The Undoing, starring and produced by Nicole Kidman; and dramedies coming from Tom Perrotta and Phoebe Waller-Bridge. He’s brought back Big Little Lies, a darkly glimmering femme-fest that had been intended as a limited series but was packed with so much star power that it just couldn’t die. HBO has even dipped a toe into the reboot waters by reviving Deadwood, David Milch’s profane and poetic Western, for a one-off movie later this year.
The series was jerking back to life at Melody Ranch, the Western-style studio north of Los Angeles that originally served as the show’s backdrop, when I visited one afternoon in the fall. The whole cast had returned to bring closure to its tangled tale of outlaws, whores, and prospectors. It was a hot November afternoon, and a giant block of ice was melting into the dirt on the town’s main thoroughfare. Rickety wooden doors creaked in the wind and hand-painted signs offered passersby all manner of delights: shady ladies, a 25-cent bath, a plate of elk.
Everywhere I looked were familiar faces from the television pantheon. That’s because Deadwood knit together an ensemble of actors who would go forth and populate the brave new world of golden-age TV that sprouted from ground plowed by HBO in the aughts. I spotted Anna Gunn (AMC’s Breaking Bad ) perching on a chair getting her bonnet adjusted, while Timothy Olyphant (FX’s Justified ) walked the periphery of the set, stretching his legs. Molly Parker (Netflix’s House of Cards) hitched up her skirt to dig through a cooler full of soda cans, and Ian McShane (Starz’s American Gods) sat quietly near the catering table, tapping on his phone.
As it happens, Westworld, one of HBO’s hottest current dramas, shoots on the very same sets as Deadwood, at Melody Ranch. Walking through some of the weathered buildings was confusing: was I in Deadwood’s 19th-century Wild West outpost or Westworld’s dystopian simulacrum of one? With a budget said to run $8 to $10 million per episode, Westworld is a beneficiary of HBO’s largesse—as Deadwood was back in the day—which allows selected show-runners to construct such vast, imaginary worlds.
Like Game of Thrones, it took four years for Westworld to make it from green light to premiere; at one point production halted on the debut season to give married creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy time to get ahead of the writing. Few networks could have afforded this level of patience, but Westworld ultimately became HBO’s most-watched first season ever. The way Nolan described HBO’s process to me, it sounded almost like a grad-school thesis defense: “Being forced, every once in a while, to question your assumptions and talk it through almost always makes the thing better.”
When I visited Bloys at HBO’s Santa Monica office a few weeks earlier, he cued up a trailer for the network’s upcoming shows that included snippets of Euphoria, a jagged drama about drug-addled teen girls starring Zendaya, executive-produced by Drake. Also highly anticipated in 2019 is Damon Lindelof’s adventurous take on the graphic-novel series Watchmen. While there is a lot riding on the slate, Bloys sounded blithe.
“We’ve been talking about 2019 for two years,” he said, clicking off his TV, “and right now we’re working on putting together 2020.”
True Detective, which returned to HBO’s schedule in 2019, offers a unique view of the network’s creative process. The show’s creator, Nic Pizzolatto, was a novelist who had no show-running experience before HBO backed him. The series’s first season, in 2014, was a huge hit that invited audience deep dives and propelled Matthew McConaughey’s much- celebrated renaissance. Its rushed-to-market second season ran aground in 2015, joining a short list of recent HBO duds that includes the quiet fizzle of Alan Ball’s Here and Now and the spectacular flameout of Vinyl, the series from Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger said to have consumed $100 million during the single season that aired in 2016.
Many networks would have axed True Detective, but HBO gave Pizzolatto rope to write new scripts. As each new one came in, Bloys made Plepler promise not to let on that they were pleased, determined to make sure there was a clear path forward. After four good scripts came in, they pulled the trigger on a third season.
The network’s show-runners all seem to have stories of such finessing. Insecure star and creator Issa Rae had built a following on YouTube with series such as The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, but it took a while for her to find her voice at HBO. She was told that “the stories that we were leaning on just felt kind of sitcom-y,” Rae recalls, and too narrowly focused. Bloys says that the breakthrough was making her circle of friends—and her boyfriend Lawrence—into major characters.
HBO programming chief Casey Bloys and Plepler, photographed at the Lambs Club, in New York City.
Damon Lindelof remembers a note that inspired him to compress an entire episode of The Leftovers into one magnificent six-minute monologue. And he gets a little rhapsodic when he talks about the leeway HBO has afforded him in developing Watchmen. Although he was in the middle of shooting when we spoke in November, Lindelof said that some of his writers had been working on the show for almost a year, “going down blind alleys and hoping to see the light.” He regularly uses Bloys—who hasn’t read the original graphic novels—as a sounding board to make sure the show’s mysteries make sense to comics fans and novices alike.
While such spin-offable I.P. is the current coin of the industry realm, Bloys says he wants an HBO version of a superhero show: dark, provocative, and complex. Along with the Thrones prequel in development, Watchmen seems like the best candidate to keep young viewers and genre obsessives hooked. Yet Bloys insists he wasn’t particularly yearning for a superhero show when he started discussing Watchmen with Lindelof. “I was more interested in Damon, and what interests him.”
HBO has long revolved around spotting talent, and also sticking with it. Bloys says that sometimes he’s been inclined to say no to an HBO alum’s project, only to have Plepler counsel him, “ ‘Ah, just spend the money!’ It’s a good reminder that talent is sacred.” Bloys talks glowingly about writer-performers like Lena Dunham, Danny McBride, and Bill Hader, noting that, if you write the script as well as perform the lead role, “you’ve got more control over the weird tone” you’re aiming for.
“Anyone who tells you we knew Thrones was going to be Thrones—I’m just here to report to you, they’re full of shit,” Plepler told me when we met. “What you know is: This is really good; we believe in these people. . . . And then you hope it finds its way into the cultural conversation.”
Still, in recent years, HBO has become notorious as a kind of limbo for high-end TV projects: it bought far more scripts than it could afford to make and then kept creators on permanent hold. “HBO is the sugarcane slave trade of TV,” Sherman-Palladino, who had written a pilot for the network, kvetched to me in 2015. “Once they own it, they have first position for however long.”
When I mention this reputation for hoarding, Bloys bounces in his seat, eager to explain. This glut amassed before he was in his current position, but he understands how it happened. “You have to remember that was a time when Netflix was just coming up, and people were starting to spend a lot of money,” he says. “I think it may have been a defensive thing.” When he took over programming, one of his first orders of business was to shore up the list—a task aided by an increased budget that allows for more programming hours.
“Anyone who tells you we knew Thrones was going to be Thrones—I’m just here to report to you, they’re full of shit . . .”
While HBO has nurtured talent, it has not always been a particularly equal-opportunity support system. For a long time, the network was synonymous with shows about male-dominated subcultures conjured by brooding white-male auteurs. Although it had an early hit with Sex and the City, and though it developed pitches with most of Hollywood’s great female show-runners, HBO didn’t rustle up another female-driven show until Girls premiered in 2012. Its first show created by a woman of color came four years after that, with the premiere of Rae’s Insecure.
Several recent additions suggest a concerted effort to find more diverse talent. There’s Terence Nance’s wildly poetic variety series, Random Acts of Flyness, Wyatt Cenac’s unconventional political talk show, Problem Areas, and LeBron James and Maverick Carter’s laid-back, barbershop-based talk show, The Shop. Rae is also developing more shows, including a limited series with Laura Dern based on a true story about a battle over Cabbage Patch dolls in small-town Arkansas. Then there’s the upcoming Lovecraft Country, a historical-fantasy series set in Jim Crow America created by Misha Green and starring Michael Kenneth Williams and Jurnee Smollett-Bell. Green points out that it will take a sizable budget to make Lovecraft Country come to life. “It is a bigger show than Girls or Insecure,” she says. “You’ve got to put money behind this thing, and then it becomes a question of value. Are we undervaluing stories that are not about white men? The answer is yes . . . and it has to change.”
Rae recalled going to bat for Melina Matsoukas, an African-American director who had never worked in TV before. “Casey was sensing my frustrations in finding a director, and he was like, ‘If you have to take a risk, who would you choose?’ ” Having someone like Matsoukas who would back her up culturally gave her the guts to push her scripts further. Rae jokes that their episodes are full of black references that white HBO execs don’t recognize (recent examples: “hotep” and “how sway”), but that they’ve trusted viewers would get.
Executive Producer, Prentice Penny on the set of Insecure with Yvonne Orji and Issa Rae, 2018.
Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep and Reese Witherspoon on the set of Big Little Lies, 2018.
“Obviously, as a gay white man I don’t understand all the things that Issa and her friends are going through,” Bloys says lightly. “But things like love and dating, and feeling stuck in a job . . . if a show is done well, people are going to get it.”
No matter how adroitly HBO uses its expanded budget and development team, danger looms as the well-funded competition increases. Warner Media announced plans to unveil a new on-demand streaming platform later this year, where it will offer movies and shows from the Warner Bros. and Turner libraries. HBO will be the centerpiece of the service, though viewers will likely also be able to continue accessing shows through HBO Now, Amazon, Netflix, and cable. Apple will soon be joining Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon in creating the kind of challenging shows HBO invented. And they will all be vying for viewers who have a finite amount of time to devote to watching TV.
The network will also be competing to sign creators and performers. That is already leading to an escalating war for talent deals, with streaming services especially eager to lock down shiny names. In the last few years, Netflix has made headlines with record-breaking overall deals—people like Ryan Murphy, Shonda Rhimes, and Marti Noxon, who tend to have multiple projects on the go simultaneously.
HBO has taken to showcasing big names in recent years (Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Amy Adams among them), but the network originally forged its reputation by creating stars from scratch. Now that outposts of weirdos exist all over cable and digital TV (hello Atlanta, Fleabag, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend!), HBO can’t just gather up all the established geniuses. It will need to keep finding those fresh voices and tapping into the shock of new.
At several points in our conversation, Plepler describes HBO as a sort of blue-chip art gallery: “When you see an artist who’s a derivative of another artist, even when they’re good painters, you say, They’re copying them! Because an original’s an original.” While discussing his ambitions about what can be achieved on-screen, Plepler brought up the way his grandmother used to practice the old Jewish custom of spitting and saying “pu pu pu” when anything good happened, to ward off bad luck. “So when Frank Rich sends us an e-mail and he says, ‘The writers’ room is great, it’s on fire’. . . I’m already thinking, Where’s Watchmen? Where’s Euphoria Episode Two?” Pu pu pu.