"More is not better. Only better is better," says HBO's Richard Plepler as he joins Netflix's Ted Sarandos, A+E's Nancy Dubuc, AMC's Josh Sapan and NBCUniversal's Bonnie Hammer for a discussion to debate the industry's 'Game of Thrones'-style fight for viewers, dwindling ratings, monetization, innovation — and the bragging rights of being the first to figure it all out.
When Netflix's chief content officer Ted Sarandos and HBO CEO Richard Plepler jovially greeted each other at Highline Stages in New York's Meatpacking District in late July, gone was the tinge of animosity that once crept into the rivalry between their two companies.
After all, "Peak TV," as the current boom of 400-plus scripted series has come to be called, has been a boon to both. Netflix brought HBO's model of a premium content outlet (and dozens of Emmy nominations each year) to the web, and HBO promptly mimicked Netflix by launching its own digital streaming service, HBO Now. In fact, Sarandos, 52, rejects fears that Peak TV has led to a content bubble ready to burst. "It's an analog phrase," he says. "Everything exists in perpetuity now, so every time we put on a new show, we are competing with everything ever made."
How to stand out in that cluttered TV universe was a recurring theme at THR's first roundtable gathering of CEO-level television executives. Sarandos and Plepler, 57, were joined by A+E Networks' Nancy Dubuc, 47, AMC Networks' Josh Sapan, 65, and NBCUniversal's Bonnie Hammer, 66, who expressed one of the only sure things in a changing TV business: "The crap is going to fail."
Ted, Baz Luhrmann's The Get Down is said to have cost you $120 million. He maintained it's not the most expensive TV series ever, but is that figure accurate?
TED SARANDOS He quickly threw The Crown [an upcoming Netflix drama about the royal family] under the bus. (Laughs.)
BONNIE HAMMER But that's starting to absolutely kill us poor people here in basic cable. We have wonderfully talented producers and suppliers, people like Sam Esmail [Mr. Robot] doing a great job, who all of a sudden hear what these guys [at Netflix] are paying and are coming in and going like this (puts hands out). And if we want to keep amazing talent, it's raising our bar in terms of what we have to put out.
SARANDOS Different than everyone at the table, we have a one-on-one relationship with our subscribers. If you don't like what you're watching on Netflix, it's just one click and cancel. So we have to make noise. Part of our business mandate is we're making "event television," and it ain't cheap. So we have to take those big swings every once in a while. We're not competing against ABC sitcoms, we're competing against Pokemon Go, we're competing against the $200 million blockbuster movies. There was a lot of press around whether or not [The Get Down was a] runaway budget. It wasn't. We knew going in, when you make a Baz Luhrmann production, it's not going to be cheap but it's going to be spectacular. And that's where we're at.
You spent $6 billion on content this year, and you've said you are going higher. Where's the ceiling?
SARANDOS It depends on the subscribers.
But Netflix's rate of sub growth has slowed, at least in the U.S.
SARANDOS It's a law of big numbers. So, of course, the rate of growth has slowed, but we're continuing to grow at a healthy pace. It was a miss of a forecast but in a very healthy growth quarter.
So, is there a ceiling?
SARANDOS It depends on what you think the ceiling is for Netflix, in terms of how many people will be Netflix members around the world. Because when you join Netflix in Mexico or the U.S., it's the same revenue pool. In Korea and Japan, where American movies don't always do that well, Baz Luhrmann movies do. So there's a method to this, and the content budget is a direct reflection of the subscriber base.
For the rest of you, when you're negotiating with talent and they know what Netflix or HBO is willing to pay...
NANCY DUBUC Oh, it's a headache!
So, how do you convince them to bring shows to you?
DUBUC A lot of it is the stories that people want to tell. If you're Michael Hirst [Vikings] or you want to make a drama about the Knights Templar, we make a lot of sense for that [at History]. They want to know who is seeing it, they want to know they are speaking to a specific fan base and a specific audience they're making their craft and their stories for.
RICHARD PLEPLER As everybody here knows, just spending a lot of money …
DUBUC ... doesn't mean it's great television.
PLEPLER It's absolutely no guarantee.
"We have large portfolios," says Dubuc. "One show isn’t going to crater any of our networks." (Photo taken by Jai Lennard)
Try telling the agents that.
PLEPLER This Baz Luhrmann thing may end up being a super-hit, but more is not better. Only better is better. We've had a lot of successes with shows that have been midrange budgets, and some shows where we've spent more money haven't landed as well as we hoped they were going to land.
DUBUC Most of our unscripted fare rates higher than most of the scripted fare on all of television.
HAMMER The lure for us is what we call "symphony" — and AMC and A+E do it in their own way — where a [show] will not only be on USA, we may cross-platform it on USA and Syfy, and you're going to get promotion across the entire portfolio, meaning NBC, in the [theme] parks, everywhere we go.
JOSH SAPAN There will continue to evolve all sorts of different content that's well adapted, if not perhaps perfectly adapted, to different platforms and sequences of distribution. So SVOD is a wonderful mousetrap, and it's enviable in many ways because it has certain characteristics and it puts pressure for a limited time on linear [TV]. It's possible then that linear re-emerges as a place to see something that is in the moment. It can be Sunday night [for HBO's shows] or what Bonnie did with [Bravo's] Watch What Happens Live, which is a piece of brilliance that's under-recognized that gave birth to [aftershows] that we and others are doing. It's a phenomenon that is actually servicing a creative and human interest, which is, "Let's do this together."
PLEPLER The five or six things that we have in the development pipeline, which we're excited about, are not huge-budget projects. Look, occasionally somebody comes in — we're going to get pitched something in a few weeks that I know just from the logline is going to be very expensive. (Laughter.) What I can tell you is what we're making going forward are not our highest-budget projects. That's not because we've come in and said, "We're not going to spend over this or over that," it's because that is the vision of the artist who's come in. Parenthetically, there are people who have come in like Steven Soderbergh with digital ideas that he would never have even contemplated two years ago. So yes, he wants to continue The Knick, but he is equally passionate about another project that is purely digital focused. Same with Jon Stewart.
Richard, what did you learn most from the Vinyl experience?
PLEPLER You can have an extraordinary array of talent in one place — a preternatural director in Marty [Scorsese], a showrunner with a brilliant track record like Terry [Winter], maybe the most famous rock star [Mick Jagger] of our era who knew that period better than anyone, a brilliant cast and everybody is very excited, and it doesn't land quite the way you hope it's going to land.
SAPAN I've never seen that. (Laughs.)
PLEPLER To quote Hyman Roth, "That’s the business we've chosen."
How did you make that decision to renew Vinyl and then kill it?
DUBUC Well, you don't make a decision to fail.
PLEPLER We took a look at where we were, and the fundamental question on the table was, "Could it be great?" You have to answer that very coldly and honestly. Not, "Could it be better?" but "Can it be great?" And if you come to the conclusion that it's going to be a better version of good and, given how high the bar is, [and that there's] something of a target on the back of that show, we collectively made a decision, "Let's move on." Those are difficult decisions, but that's what we get paid to do.
SARANDOS In the same vein of budgets don't always drive grandeur, the big surprise for us has been Stranger Things. These are brand-new filmmakers, the Duffer brothers, and with a cast of complete unknowns. Winona Ryder and Matthew Modine complement them, but these kids are out of nowhere. I just saw them the other night, and they're a couple weeks into their fame and they are out of their minds. They are 11- and 12-year-old kids whose lives are just completely turned upside down. But it's a good example: For every Baz Luhrmann or every David Fincher [House of Cards], the exciting part is when there's a Duffer brothers that emerges.
Nancy, take us through the value proposition on a $50 million project like Roots. Will it be profitable? And does that matter, or is it more about branding and Emmys?
DUBUC Roots happens to be profitable already, but it's not why we did it. What I say to the team is, "I'd much rather fail spectacularly than fail quietly. So if we're going to do it, let's do it." It was the 40th anniversary [of the original], so there was a historic element to it. We greenlighted it long before the Black Lives Matter conversation heated up, so we got caught in a little bit of a cultural moment, but we were really endeavoring to do something that we thought was important storytelling. It came together because I don't remember [the original]. I was too young. And so I said to everybody, "This was a cultural moment on TV, and I don't remember it. And there's a million of me out there, so let's do it."
SAPAN Nancy, I should tell you about The Rifleman, Howdy Doody … (Laughter.)
SARANDOS I remember the streets emptying out for those nights that Roots was on.
PLEPLER What deserves added praise is you take on an iconic piece like that, all eyes are on you.
DUBUC Yeah, I did know we couldn't screw up. (Laughs.)
SARANDOS We had that with Fuller House. (Laughter.)
Another recent big swing was your decision to turn Vice into a cable network, Viceland. All eyes are on you there, too.
DUBUC Look, not only do we have to find great shows and great creative, but we're also tasked as executives with finding new models for our businesses and ways to expand. Viceland is part of a broader initiative where we're part owners in Vice proper, and so it was a bigger conversation. Indirectly, Richard and I are in business together [via Time Warner's Vice investment].
DUBUC And that's where the business is going. If we were to all come back to this table 10 years from now, our businesses are going to look very different, we're going to be partnering differently, selling to each other and using our brands differently. And not only do we need to swing for shows on behalf of the audience, but we have to swing with business ideas and strategic ideas to make sure that the next generation of creatives have a newly imagined or reimagined way of having their products seen.
But at Richard's sister company, CNN, you have Jeff Zucker saying, "Look at these Viceland ratings, they're horrible." How do you reconcile that?
PLEPLER First of all, [A+E is] doing with Vice exactly what they should be doing with that piece of the brand, and we're doing with Vice exactly what we should be doing with the public affairs and news side of the brand. What we said to Shane [Smith, Vice CEO] was, "Let's design the daily news show [launching Sept. 26] to the digital optionality that we wouldn't have had before." It's designed for millennials with a particular voice that tries to bring some intelligent context to an unbelievably complicated world. I think we're going to do something important. The street talk that goes back and forth between [Jeff and Shane] I actually find a little bit silly. Jeff is doing brilliant work at CNN.
SARANDOS He must be so thankful for Donald Trump.
PLEPLER Their ratings are way up. And Shane has done an extraordinary thing in building a brand that has multifaceted contours to it. There's room for everybody.
We know what Zucker thinks of Viceland. From where you sit, Nancy, how's it faring?
SARANDOS Yeah, would you give your ratings? (Laughter.)
DUBUC I'll tell you mine if you'll tell me yours! (Laughter.)
DUBUC It's doing exactly what we set out to do, and it has garnered a couple of Emmy nominations for a 3-month-old channel. The goal was to attract an audience that is not watching much TV, and it has been growing every week, and the ratings are going to be public soon enough. But we're trying to pivot the conversation away from just purely ratings.
SAPAN In defense of swings, a sure sign of a great future entity is some attention in the [early stages] when everyone jumps up and down and says, "No!" They are often competitors, and it suggests they're paying attention. I can tell you our own tales of who said what when. Early on, it was, "Why are you doing dramas that cost too much and you can't monetize? It'll drown your company." Followed by, "Who are you going to be when Breaking Bad and Mad Men go off the air? You've got nothing, that's your identity and your destiny."
PLEPLER We know something about that. (Laughs.)
SAPAN My personal opinion is [Viceland is] spectacular and its voice is really true and it will be not only sustained but fully redeemed. I really believe that.
DUBUC And I know how to put ratings on that channel. I take some of my programming [from History or A&E] and I move it to that channel, and it has ratings. But we made a very specific decision to be pure to the brand because brands matter.
HAMMER We're pretty jealous of Nancy because we looked at Vice as well. We were in kind of, sort of serious conversations knowing that it probably wasn't going to come in our world. But if we all aren't thinking about adjacencies now and struggling through the pain of watching their growth — oh, it would be so much easier if I took all of Bravo's programming and threw it over there, we'd get instant blips of ratings, but that's not what they're about. They're learning how to shoot differently, to program differently, to target a whole different audience that doesn't understand linear, live, scheduled TV. There are so many different ways we have to experiment, and we're going to fall on our face.
PLEPLER The easiest thing is for somebody to come in the room and tell you why something won't work. It happens every day.
SARANDOS It's way more easy to say no.
HAMMER One of the challenges for all of us, too, is how do you refine and grow a brand as audiences age out? Because the brands may be targeted not just to a certain demo but to a taste of that demographic. You want to stay pure to your brand, but as the millennials age into it and the 50-somethings age out of it, there's a lot of risk in doing that. I know we've [experienced that] on USA and Syfy, and we're getting to that place with Bravo — not so with E! yet — where we have to make changes. I think that's the hardest thing …
Mr. Robot is in many ways that, no?
HAMMER It's a sharp left turn, but people didn't know we took some baby steps that weren't necessarily ratings successes but started laying a bit of groundwork. We did Political Animals, which was kind of dark and edgy.
SARANDOS Dark for the Blue Sky Network?
HAMMER That's exactly right. And we took a couple of middle swings that we were very proud of but it was like, "What are they doing?" It took such a strong left turn [with Mr. Robot], which we took a big risk on. When we read the script we thought it was brilliant, but I'm sitting there giving notes, saying, "I love it but how are you going to deal with all that voiceover? What are you going to see?"
You've gotten the awards attention and it's helped change the perception of the brand, but it’s not the commercial hit that some of those Blue Sky shows were. The same is true for you, Nancy, with UnReal at Lifetime. Is that a model that you can replicate?
HAMMER This is a discussion in terms of live-[plus-same-day ratings] versus aggregating eyeballs, and we have not gotten to the place where we can aggregate who is watching it where. But as best as we can tell, the aggregation of everyone who’s watching it is pretty damn huge.
DUBUC It's also about managing a portfolio. Bonnie, Josh and I have large portfolios, so one show isn't going to crater any of our networks. And you're making a decision based on a portfolio of choices, so you have your high and your low.
SARANDOS It's interesting though. The better monetization for that show would probably be subscription, right? Because L7, L30, L60, L150, all those are not monetized equally. Why we're trying to disconnect ourselves from all those different mechanisms is that it's equally valuable for me if somebody watches Bloodline season one the week after season two has launched two years ago.
PLEPLER Same with us.
HAMMER But there’s still value in ad sales. You take a look at what Mr. Robot has done for the cache of the channel at large and those wanting to be in it, in spite of what that live-same number is, and you can't buy what the halo has done for USA. Now, are we going to do everything that dark? No. (Laughs.)
DUBUC We also have an international business. We're in 200 countries. So Roots is traveling globally, UnReal is traveling globally. We have a very U.S.-centric point of view at this table and as a country but that's not how we're programming.
A few of you at this table don't yet have a stand-alone OTT option. Any plans to change that?
HAMMER I think we're all experimenting. Years ago, something would happen and you had a decade to catch up and figure it out. [Then it was] about five years. Now it's five weeks.
SAPAN If you're in the jobs that we're in, you're paid to look at what's happening today, next week, next year and beyond because the businesses will go on. There wasn't streaming a short time ago, and now look at how predominant it is. So when you evaluate a piece of content today, particularly if you own it, it's probably misguided to take a time frame that's very short because you're going to blow it.
DUBUC Ownership is going to give you the flexibility to be able to react, whether it's more global, whether it's a different technology, whether it's a different platform.
SARANDOS There's no question [ownership is] better economics and better optionality.
And yet Netflix still is licensing a lot of its programming. Will you look to own more?
SARANDOS We do both, but the danger of mandating ownership is then you really narrow the universe of things you're going to do. Universal Television makes Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Master of None for us, and I'm glad that we didn't walk away based on ownership religion.
PLEPLER But what you don't want to a degree is to have all the brand cachet around House of Cards and then find out that it's on Canal Plus in France.
SARANDOS I definitely agree that was true at the beginning when we didn't own all the territories. It's a lot of brand confusion. I definitely want the global access to those brands, so then we have to do the debate back and forth: Do you want to go back and buy up those territories or do you focus on the next [project]?
PLEPLER Going forward, you'd agree it's a better thing than not to own your content?
SARANDOS For sure.
HAMMER Eighty percent of all the shows we're doing now we are doing at [Universal Cable Productions], and it's to be able to have that flexibility. If the ad dollars aren't coming in quite the same way, and we're not 100 percent sure of what's going to happen with the affiliate world as slim packaging happens, we have to be able to do whatever we want with the content. We have to be able to [distribute] it in different formats, whether it's digital, VOD, SVOD, and the only way to do that is to own it from the get-go.
Ted, we've acknowledged you're willing to pay a hefty amount to talent upfront, but there are growing questions about what one's backend looks like at Netflix.
SARANDOS That's why the checks are so big. We are negotiating for what the backend would be.
But you're now getting into second, third, fourth, fifth seasons of shows where talent and creators expect to be paid more.
SARANDOS In many cases, they are paid more; they are paid upfront for that.
Agents complain that the ultimate payday on a huge hit might be lower at Netflix because there's no big syndication deal and you've bought out all foreign rights.
SARANDOS I bet not. Ultimately, if you look at the cancel rate and the renewal rate of this last season, if you factor in that as a discount of some kind, you'd think that you've done very well by your client. So you're talking about 99 percent of the output for the 1 percent that's going to break out [elsewhere]. So, we do buy those out and we don't choose to license the content off of Netflix to others because I think most of the value of that content is wrapped up in the exclusivity on Netflix right now. That may change down the road.
Do you watch all the original content that's now on Netflix? Every episode of Fuller House?
SARANDOS I do. But the heartbreak is I don't get to watch it as it's being made every time anymore. There are too many things now. This month, we have a documentary series called Fearless about Brazilian bull riders, and it's the kind of thing that in the old days I would've loved to have been involved in every shoot and cut, and yet you can't anymore.
PLEPLER Staying current with all our stuff is enormously time-consuming. And everybody here is also a healthy neurotic, so they are watching early cuts.
SARANDOS And I'm watching your stuff and your stuff (looking around the table).
SAPAN It has borderline taken the joy out of television.
In two to three years, how will your businesses be different?
HAMMER We're going to continue to figure out the best way to streamline internally, as we did this past year creating all development for scripted coming through one tunnel so it's one-stop shopping. Similarly, we're trying to figure out how to do that with reality, which is a little different because the sensibility is different. I'm also hoping that we'll have a lot of adjacent businesses that will allow us to play in the digital world with sell-through, with more social coming in so we're not [just] dabbling in digital that has nothing to do with our lifestyle networks.
Ted, $12 billion a year in content?
SARANDOS What's your time frame? (Laughs.) The most fundamental shift is going to be the volume of original production for Netflix. Considering we did almost none three years ago, flash forward three years from now and we probably would be producing more original programming than any single source, any single network, any single studio globally. So that's a big shift.
Will Netflix buy a content studio?
SARANDOS We have a "We'd rather build it than buy it" mentality that goes back to our technology start. Everything about the company is really built internally; there's no off-the-shelf anything.
PLEPLER For us, it's about options. So if Comcast, as an example, wants to package us in their Triple Play [bundle], that's great. If they want to package us in Basic Plus, that's great. If they want to put us in a skinny streaming [bundle], that's great. If they want to put us in their broadband-only bundle and upsell into a cable bundle, that's great. And then we, too, are going to make more and more programming. It also bears mention: 74 percent of our viewing across all platforms is Hollywood movies.
SARANDOS Is that true of [HBO] Now and [HBO] Go as well?
PLEPLER Absolutely. And movies that did not necessarily perform so brilliantly at the box office [perform for us]: John Wick, We're the Millers, [The Other Woman]. I'm talking in the 32 million to 34 million [viewers range] over a period of time. So we want to continue to have our movie advantage. And then globally, adding the new option of OTT and continuing to grow with cable penetration around the world is going to help us build our international business, which is about 25 percent of our revenue, and you're going to see that grow in the coming years.
Will you have the same owners?
PLEPLER I think so, yeah. We like flying under our own flag.
SAPAN I think we'll be more global, too. We spent $1 billion buying channels around the world.
DUBUC Can I have half my channel back [in Spain]? (Laughter.) I keep asking; he's like, "No."
SAPAN We'll own more intellectual property that we come to by producing it ourselves, and we'll develop more facility to go direct to consumer as a companion to the work we do with distributors.
Nancy, will A+E have the same number of networks in the U.S.?
DUBUC Yes. I think we've already done an amazing job at culling our herd and saying we're in the business of brands and we've picked our brands and these are our ponies in the race, so to speak. The way that we think about our brands will evolve. So I think about History as a category, and we have to own that brand not just on linear television but as a label that expands to all types of different storytelling and products. And the way we create programs and curate shows is going to change dramatically. We have to find ways to access different voices to help us tell these stories and not keep going back to the same well we're all competing in. You're also going to see the clock for linear channels change dramatically. A show could be 10 minutes, seven minutes, 94 minutes. We just need to tell the stories that need to be told.
SARANDOS I wanted to come back to movies. One of the byproducts of this golden age of TV is that it has come at the cultural expense of movies. I think why TV has taken this dominant role has been that the distribution models are so much better and more consumer-friendly. So when you give people the opportunity to watch movies, [they do.] We have different flavors of it in every country. In Canada, we have a ton of output deals. It's about 70/30 TV-to-movies. So about 30 percent of all watching is movies.
SARANDOS Yeah. And I'd say that they're the most ridiculous windows that we're getting them in. When people are excited about a TV show, there are 50 different ways they can watch it. When they're excited about a movie, they sit around and twiddle their thumbs for 10 months until they can watch it on Netflix or HBO or somewhere. So that's why we moved into [movie] production.
PLEPLER Our movie usage on the network is higher now than at any time. And the stickiness, meaning the repeat viewing, is higher than at any time in our history.
SARANDOS That's what motivated us to get into production — we felt that that's the best way we can influence the window.
Even Adam Sandler movies?
SARANDOS The two Adam Sandler movies premiered at No. 1 in every single territory of Netflix around the world. The Do-Over is still in the top 10 in nearly all of them. It's been a hugely successful deal, and he's got another one called Sandy [Wexler]. The thing that is most global on Netflix is Adam Sandler.
Long live Adam Sandler!
A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.