The premium cable network’s subscriber base grew more in 2014 than in any year in the last 30, thanks to its continued international expansion, a string of new hit shows (Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, Silicon Valley, True Detective), and CEO Richard Plepler’s deft maneuvering that makes HBO the envy of the rapidly shifting media landscape. Now it is unleashing its streaming service, HBO Go. Sometime this year, viewers will be able to purchase access to HBO programming and archives, which the company hopes will win it 10 million to 20 million new customers. Plepler has been opening up the network for a while now. Witness AT&T’s offer from last September: broadband, a year of Amazon Prime, and HBO Go for $39 a month. Last April, HBO signed a surprising deal to license some of its shows to Amazon. “I had a hunch that there were a lot of voters out there who were undecided because they didn’t fully understand the range or the value of the brand,” Plepler says. “We want to work with our partners, but we also want to work with new partners.”
Plepler, a 22-year HBO veteran, drives innovation through groups he calls Team B’s; it’s an idea he says he stole from an old CIA playbook. “Team B’s were essentially groups of smart people inside the CIA whose purpose was to challenge conventional wisdom and look at all options with an open mind,” he says. Attracting artists is more straightforward: “When talent is treated with the love and respect that I think our culture treats them with, that becomes very catalytic. They tell colleagues, ‘I just had an experience there that was remarkable.’ ”
How good is HBO at reaching viewers everywhere? For one week in January, the network leaped from the small screen to the largest one we’ve got: It partnered with IMAX theaters nationwide to show the last two episodes of the previous season of Game of Thrones, along with the first trailer for the new season that begins this spring.
[Photo: Daan Brand; Eric Liebowitz/HBO (Oliver); Janet Van Ham/HBO (Maher); Lacey Terrell/HBO (Potts, Harrelson, Walsh); James Bridges/HBO (McConaughey); Michele K. Short/HBO (Monaghan); Steven Lippman/HBO/Everett Collection (Moyer, Skarsgard, Paquin, Trammel, Wesley); Jessica Miglio/HBO (Garlin, Gasteyer, David); Paul Schiraldi/HBO (Louis-Dreyfus, Bradshaw, Chlumsky, Hale); Prashant Gupta/HBO (Lewis); John P. Johnson/HBO/Everett Collection (Hines); Fred Norris/HBO (McBride); Jaimie Trueblood/HBO (Brener, Middleditch); Macall B. Polay/HBO (Sparks, Macdonald, Buscemi, Piazza, Graham, Huisman); Macall B. Polay/HBO/Everett Collection (Michael Williams); Christopher T. Saunders/HBO (Rosenfield); Keith Bernstein/HBO/Everett Collection (Clarke); Helen Sloan/HBO/Everett Collection (Headey, Allen, Maisie Williams); Helen Sloan/HBO (Turner, Dinklage); Aby Baker/Getty Images (Mamet); Steve Sands/GC Images/Getty Images (Allison Williams); Alo Ceballos/FilmMagic/Getty Images (Kirke); Steve Sands/GC Images/Getty Images (Dunham)]