“I hate conference tables,” Richard Plepler, the CEO of HBO, says matter of factly. “They make people so . . . ” He cocks his head to think of the right word. “Stilted.”
Plepler is sitting in his corner office on the 10th floor of HBO’s Sixth Avenue headquarters one morning, his silhouette framed by a view of Midtown Manhattan–a Mark Rothko-like abstraction of charcoal and chrome. Plepler also apparently hates desks, and there is no sign of one in his spare but elegant office, which is dominated by three large, cream-colored couches arranged in a semi-circle. At HBO, this is where business takes place.
“When I’ve learned the most from Richard, or been influenced the most, it’s sitting on his couch, just talking,” says Courteney Monroe, CEO of the National Geographic Channel, who worked at HBO for 13 years in marketing. “You feel like you’re sitting in a living room and just having a very normal conversation.”
These couch chats take place constantly and underscore the degree to which HBO is a relationship-based company where corporate strategy isn’t spelled out in a company-wide email, but is discussed informally in ongoing conversations. It’s a style that extends to Plepler’s personal life. A consummate connector of people, the onetime political aide is equally comfortable in Hollywood, media, and political circles, and he spends a great deal of time in all of them. Dinner parties at his Manhattan home are legendary–such as the one where Sarah Jessica Parker found herself sitting next to Shimon Peres, the former president of Israel. “He’s good friends with a lot of different people from different walks of life,” says Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the star of HBO’s White House satire Veep. “He’s not just hanging out with the money guys.”
Since becoming CEO in 2013, Plepler has formalized the in-house socializing that goes on at HBO, creating a BDC, or Business Development Council, that brings people together from all parts of the company–marketing, corporate communications, distribution–to dissect issues. He also started smaller groups, known as Team Bs, whose mission is to “challenge conventional wisdom,” he says, adding that he stole the idea “from an old CIA playbook.” He also holds informal chats in his office every other Friday where anyone from an assistant to a marketing director can vent or ask questions. “Everyone’s a little more relaxed on Friday,” Plepler says. “I just say, ‘Guys, look. The door’s closed. I won’t quote anything you say. I might quote the idea. I just want to hear what’s on your mind.'”
Plepler believes these kinds of discussions are necessary as he molds HBO into more of a nimble speedboat as opposed to the steady-as-she goes battleship the company has long been. Facing threats from pesky upstarts like Netflix and a pay-TV industry that is showing signs of vulnerability–in 2013, the number of pay-TV subscribers dropped for the first time in history–Plepler finds himself at one of the most pivotal moments in HBO’s history. It’s one that requires making risky moves, such as launching HBO Now, the company’s new standalone streaming service. It’s also one that he believes starts with HBO’s culture.
One of the biggest deals to come out of HBO’s new, status quo-challenging culture was last year’s decision to license some of HBO’s older shows to Amazon, marking the first time that HBO has made any of its content available on another platform (besides syndication). The deal, worth a reported $300 million, came out of a Team B discussion that inspired “robust debate,” according to Tom Woodbury, HBO’s head of global distribution. Some executives feared that offering shows like The Sopranos and Six Feet Under in a Wal-Mart-like atmosphere would tarnish HBO’s blue-chip brand, not to mention accustom fans to watching HBO shows somewhere other than on HBO. Others worried that streaming shows on Amazon would undercut HBO Now once it was available.
“I remember in the first meeting, I brought everyone in, we all sat around. I said, ‘What do we think?,'” Plepler recalls. “And there were loud voices saying, ‘We can’t possibly do that!’ There were some equally loud voices saying, ‘Of course we can.’
“There were people who believed I let the conversation go on too long. I kept bringing everyone back in. But I always think it’s a good thing to waste a little time building consensus. So you don’t have to waste time on the decision. I would suggest that if the vote in the first meeting was 70-30, no. The vote by the fifth meeting was 90-10 yes.”
Shifting the culture of a company that has been incredibly successful doing things a certain way for a very long time–relying almost solely on revenue generated from pay-TV subscriptions, that is–and is largely compromised of executives who have been there for many years is no small task. (One executive who’s been at HBO for six years described herself to me as a “baby” at the company.) According to Michael Lombardo, HBO’s head of programming–a 30-year HBO veteran himself–Plepler is succeeding at it by doing things “in a very HBO way.” This means by not dictating from his corner office, but working together with his staff and being transparent about the decision-making process. “At HBO, all executives hold hands together and make decisions,” says one former employee. “It’s a very communally run company.” As a leader, Plepler plays into this, even as he nudges the company into new territory.
Says Lombardo: “People can get into grooves, which are also called ruts. Richard has very artfully had people get out of their grooves. He’s asked the question, ‘How can we pivot to be more strategic when we haven’t been using that muscle?'”
This isn’t the first time Plepler has charged himself with shaking things up. Back in 2007, when Chris Albrecht resigned as chairman and CEO of HBO after being arrested for assaulting his girlfriend in a Las Vegas parking lot, Plepler became part of a new management team charged with righting the ship. Albrecht had been a beloved leader, not to mention the key architect behind iconic shows such as Sex and the City and The Sopranos. His departure rocked the company, which was already starting to take hits from rivals like AMC and Showtime.
“I think Richard emerged into his role with a need to reclaim that high ground,” says David Carey, the president of Hearst Magazines. “There was a lot of HBO questioning for a period of time, which greeted his arrival. “I think he intuited that, and I think that also informed his decision to empower the organization, give them a seat at the table. Because he recognized he needed everybody to help get them out of that moment.”
Lombardo says that he and Plepler, who together oversaw programming, set about trying to change the perception of HBO as a “beautiful Tiffany box.” That is to say: elegant but inaccessible.
“We were watching what was going on and, I say this with all due respect to our predecessors, but you sometimes become slightly hostage to your success,” says Lombardo. “There becomes a desire to replicate the success of–like, looking for another Sopranos or looking for another Sex and the City. I think what Richard and I sort of fostered in each other was, that wasn’t the answer. And so our first programming decision was True Blood. Which everyone said, True Blood? Vampires on HBO? This is the home of The Wire! You’re gonna have vampires on HBO? Two guys who know nothing about content!” (Lombardo had previously run business affairs; Plepler came from corporate PR.)
One of their next green-light decisions was Game of Thrones, which incited a similar reaction: “Oh my God! Dragons at HBO!,” Lombardo says, laughing.
“We knew what we had to do,” says Plepler. “Work with the best people, put things on that we were proud of. Listen for the next original voice.
“That’s really, if you want to know the animating principle, to this moment, is: Let’s be proud of it. Does anybody know that Armando Iannucci’s Veep is gonna be a hit? No, but we’re proud of it.”
Plepler also looked outside the walls of the company for ideas and inspiration. Not long after Albrecht left, he and Lombardo took Frank Rich, the former New York Times op-ed columnist who’s now a writer-at-large for New York magazine, out to lunch. “They wanted to get me involved. It was sort of an amorphous thing that’s grown into being a creative consultant,” says Rich, who was an executive producer on Veep. “Part of it was to join, at that time, a freewheeling discussion about HBO, because in some ways everything was up for grabs. Management had changed suddenly. A lot of HBO’s iconic hits were nearing the end of their lives. And they wanted to sort of look at some stuff they had floating around, that hadn’t aired yet, and talk about the future of the network in general and just sort of have a running discussion.”
“It’s my nature, maybe to a fault, I’m a collaborator,” Plepler says, sitting on the corner of a couch, which is notably more well-worn than any other. In front of him are stacks of books sent from publishers and sheafs of newspapers: his daily reading regimen. “I like the power of collaboration. A company can get the benefit of cross collaboration. So if you’re privileged to be in my position, you want to keep the main thing the main thing. And the way you do that is that you widen the circle of talent and you broaden the spirit of collaboration. And if you do that, the likelihood of good decision making increases exponentially.”