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Inside HBO’s Grand Storytelling Experiment

CEO Richard Plepler, programming head Michael Lombardo, and Sunday-night star John Oliver share insights on the network’s digital revolution.

Inside HBO’s Grand Storytelling Experiment
[Source Photos: Game Of Thrones: Helen Sloan, courtesy of HBO; Girls: Craig Blankenhorn; John Oliver: Eric Liebowitz, courtesy of HBO; Silicon Valley: Frank Masi; the Leftovers: Paul Schiraldi; Togetherness: Colleen Hayes; VEEP: Patrick Harbron]

“The question used to be: Do they have a series in them?” HBO’s head of programming, Michael Lombardo, is sitting in his airy, window-lined Santa Monica office, which has a mod, Mad Men-esque feel (ironic, given that HBO famously passed on that show), as does Lombardo, who wears thick-framed black glasses and is stylishly dressed in a blue-and-white-checked, button-down shirt and unbuttoned blazer.

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Mike LombardoPhoto: courtesy of HBO

Lombardo is talking about the way HBO has historically viewed the writers and creators who pitch their TV shows every day to the company, eager for a coveted time slot on a premium cable network that has been defining watercooler conversation–and the culture at large–for two decades with iconic series like The Wire and The Sopranos. It’s a privilege that is not taken lightly in Hollywood. Just ask John Oliver, whom HBO scooped up after the British comedian sat in for Jon Stewart on The Daily Show in 2013. Last year, HBO gave Oliver his own Sunday-night news show, Last Week Tonight With John Oliver. By giving Oliver what has long been considered the best time on TV–Sunday night–the network was placing a big, high-risk bet on the comedian.

“It feels like an honor,” says Oliver. “The only problem is, here we are on this real estate on Sunday night. You don’t want to be that vacant lot in Manhattan that someone’s built a shitty tent on top of, that feels like a waste of Fifth Avenue. So the only pressure is–you don’t want to be that spectacular failure.”

Oliver may have made it on HBO with a traditional 30-minute series, but Lombardo says that new platforms are causing him, increasingly, to use other barometers when determining whether or not he wants to take a chance on a creative. Instead of whether they “have a series in them,” he is now asking himself: “What do they have?”

“It may be two, 15-minute pieces,” Lombardo says. “And they may be two brilliant 15-minute pieces. Why is that not something we should lean into?”

The media landscape is rapidly changing. The advent of the DVR and the rise of streaming services like Netflix and Hulu have enabled a generation of binge viewers who can watch what they want, when they want, where they want. Viewing habits have never been more in flux. Until now, HBO has been mostly on the sidelines of this revolution. But in the past year, the company has begun taking aggressive steps to not just join this revolution, but lead it. Most notably, this week it launched HBO Now, a standalone streaming service that will allow fans to subscribe to the network for $14.99 a month. Unlike HBO Go, HBO’s existing streaming offering (which is still available), HBO Now does not require a cable subscription. This significant change in procedure has been met with applause from younger “cord nevers” whose idea of watching TV doesn’t necessarily involve a television set–all it takes is hooking up to the Internet and clicking on Netflix or Amazon.

With HBO Now, HBO can experiment with new types of programming outside of its existing 30- and 60-minute format, as there is no daily schedule that content has to fit into. Shows–or films, or any type of content–will simply be arrayed for viewers to click on; there is no lineup. HBO Now also affords HBO a less risky platform where not every show requires a series commitment. If something’s not working, the network can just take it down.

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Lombardo calls HBO’s new digital focus “one of the more seismic changes we’ve undergone, and I’ve been here 30 years. It’s a transition moment for us. I think we’re a company that has been very successful without having to be as strategic as other companies have had to be. Because cable was growing, we had the satellite business, our brand was growing. And we just leaned into what we were doing well.

Now, Lombardo says, “I think we’re using new muscles. It’s exciting and people are energized by that.”

He says that HBO Now has opened up a “new frontier” for creatives, who are talking to HBO about producing content in all shapes and sizes for the service. “We’re not worrying about filling an hour or half hour of time. We want to tell stories in a variety of lengths. I think as artists have heard about HBO Now, we’ve started some really interesting conversations.” One A-list director has already pitched HBO Now a series of three-minute movies–the idea is that people can watch a new one every day on their phones or tablets over the course of several months. HBO CEO Richard Plepler told him: “We’re in.”

Richard PleplerPhoto: courtesy of HBO

HBO also has a new deal with Vice, the gonzo news organization that airs a weekly newsmagazine series on HBO. This year, Vice will start airing a daily half-hour newscast on HBO, and the newsmagazine show will increase from 14 episodes a year to 35. But the network sees potential for the partnership beyond 30-minute slots. As Plepler recalls telling Shane Smith, the CEO of Vice: “‘You want a news channel, buddy? Put it on HBO Now. You want to do five specials? Put it on HBO Now. You finish an ISIS doc? We don’t have to schedule it. Just put it on.”

HBO is also leaning into new ways of discovering creative talent–for example, Issa Rae, who first gained fame for her YouTube series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, is making a pilot for the network.

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But it’s not just format or artist discovery that is being rethought at HBO. The company’s entire programming strategy is under new scrutiny–particularly the notion that piling up all of the best original series on Sunday night is the best way to attract the biggest number of eyeballs. Although die-hard Game of Thrones fans still dutifully sit in front of their screens at 9 p.m. on Sundays to catch every moment of sword-clashing action the second it airs, viewers of less cultish shows are often happy to catch up hours, days, or even weeks later via DVR or HBO Go. Lombardo says this shift has devalued premiere viewership numbers to some extent, so that the attitude inside the company around top shows is no longer: “Oh my God, we have to put it on Sunday night!”

John OliverPhoto: Flickr user TechCrunch

People are also discovering HBO shows on non-HBO platforms, something that HBO is both embracing and enabling with Oliver’s Last Week Tonight. In a move that would have once been inconceivable at the network, which has traditionally kept its content on HBO in order to not dilute its pedigreed brand, full-length episodes of Last Week Tonight are put up on YouTube an hour after the show airs on Sundays. Truth be told, part of the reason HBO posts Last Week Tonight to YouTube is to make up for the fact that the show is not available on HBO Go until Monday morning because of how long it takes to upload it to the service. There simply isn’t enough time between when Last Week films and wraps to have it ready on Go when the show airs. Oliver says this is “a very technical issue” that HBO is working on. “We’re reducing (the time gap), but…I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to get it down to 11 o’clock.”

Necessity aside, the YouTube strategy is a sign that HBO is willing to experiment with new modes of distribution as of way of reaching new (read: younger) fans. And new platforms also help extend HBO’s global reach.

“[HBO] allowing us to put clips up on YouTube is a really big thing for us,” Oliver says. “Because it means that we can reach people that HBO can’t reach, not just in this country but around the world. We have people watching clips in Saudi Arabia or Yemen. You wouldn’t believe the reach that we have to places where this stuff is not available. We did this thing on FIFA that just blew up all over Latin America.”

Lombardo says it’s all part of being “at a point where we know we have to try stuff. Status quo for the sake of status quo is no longer an acceptable place.”

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Lombardo attributes much of this change in thinking to Plepler, who spearheaded the decision to launch HBO Now this year. Plepler’s leadership has been defined by pushing the company in new directions, particularly on the digital front, and opening up discussions between HBO divisions that didn’t previously communicate.

“Are we where we want to be? No. But I think the company is in a very different place than it was two years ago. And I think under Richard’s leadership we’ve sort of”–he pretends to move a huge block with his hands–“moved this company slowly but surely into one that’s become more nimble and more strategic than we’ve ever been.”

Watch the video below to see the history of HBO since 1972

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About the author

Nicole LaPorte is an LA-based senior writer for Fast Company who writes about where technology and entertainment intersect. She previously was a columnist for The New York Times and a staff writer for Newsweek/The Daily Beast and Variety

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