After 27 years working at what is arguably the most pedigreed brand in television, Richard Plepler is stepping down as chairman and CEO of HBO. The move brings to an end an era that saw the cable channel churn out a succession of water cooler-chatter hits including Game of Thrones, Veep, Girls, the miniseries Big, Little Lies, and yes, Succession, all of which Plepler championed—none more so than Game of Thrones, the biggest show in HBO’s history.
Plepler’s departure had been speculated on in the industry ever since AT&T’s $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner, HBO’s parent company last year. Immediately there was talk of making HBO less autonomous as well as upping its production closer to Netflix-like levels, a move that is incongruous with how the boutique company has historically operated. When it was reported earlier in the week that former NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt was in talks with WarnerMedia to oversee HBO and Turner, Plepler’s place in the food chain seemed even more tenuous, though Plepler is said to have come to his decision to step down several weeks ago.
In a memo to his staff, Plepler—who started at HBO as a publicist and swiftly rose through the ranks thanks to his intellect, good taste, and smooth salesmanship—wrote, “My dad always gave the best advice. Whenever there was a difficult decision to make, he counseled that since no one could ever have perfect visibility into the future, the best thing you could do was trust your instincts. It has been a touchstone for me throughout my life, and I have found myself returning to it again recently as I think about what is an inflection point in the life of this wonderful company. 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.”
Despite his old-world charm, Plepler always had his finger on the pulse, and was engineering HBO’s move into streaming much earlier on than its competitors, first with HBO Go and, more substantially four years ago with HBO Now. (Read about the evolution of that service in this Fast Company story from 2015.) When he first began exploring the idea of building up HBO’s viewership with a new digital platform, he consulted with political pollster Doug Schoen, whom Plepler had known from when he was a 22-year-old staffer for Senator Christopher Dodd. Plepler asked Schoen to gauge public opinion about HBO and its competitors, telling him, “There’s a canard out there that we’re mature, and I don’t believe it. My hunch, to use a campaign metaphor, is that there are a lot of undecided voters. Let’s go see if that’s correct. And if so, why?”
Known for his pressed suits, deep tan, gracious manners, and passionate support of “talent,” Plepler put his imprint on his network more than any other modern TV executive. He saw the company as more than just a brand, but as a creative hub and cultural touchstone. Whatever HBO produced was an event, from its Sunday night lineup to its famed Emmy party. His glee was genuine whenever he discussed conversations with HBO collaborators, from Jimmy Iovine to Sarah Jessica Parker, many of whom were regulars at his–equally famed–dinner parties at his Upper East Side townhouse.
Plepler joined HBO in 1992, eventually becoming co-president in 2007 and then chairman and CEO in 2013. A close confidante of Jeff Bewkes, the former Time Warner CEO told Fast Company in 2015, “Richard won’t steal your sandwich if you leave it on a desk. That’s an important trait if you’re going to go around and work in the white spaces, between people who are at odds with each other or have well-established walls between them. You have to make sure everybody knows you’re trustworthy.”