Bob Greenblatt on WarnerMedia Move, HBO's Content Push and Managing His Massive New Portfolio

The former NBC Entertainment chairman also talks with The Hollywood Reporter about returning to the cable space and his philosophy when it comes to sharing assets like 'Friends' and competing for top talent with massive overall deals.
Art Streiber/NBC
Bob Greenblatt

Bob Greenblatt has officially entered the streaming wars.

The former NBC Entertainment chief's next act will be overseeing WarnerMedia's entertainment brands — including its upcoming direct-to-consumer streaming platform, HBO, TBS and TNT, among other cable networks.

The gig brings the former Showtime executive and Six Feet Under executive producer back to the cable world and, in a first, will see him have oversight of a streaming platform. In his new role, Greenblatt will oversee friend and former rival broadcast chief Kevin Reilly on the streaming service while working to accelerate development across all of the Warner brands, including crown jewel HBO.

To hear Greenblatt tell it, NBC's streaming plans wasn't the type of service he wanted to oversee. Instead, the executive explains to The Hollywood Reporter that he was excited about Warner's all-in-one platform and having a hand in content curation for all of the media conglomerate's brands.

Below, Greenblatt shares his philosophy on sharing assets like Friends, protecting HBO (and Turner's) distinct brands and working with other divisions on making Warner's streaming service something that appeals to consumers amid competition from Netflix, Amazon, Apple and Disney.

Our sources noted that you were being approached with offers ranging from a producing deal at Apple to other opportunities. What was it about WarnerMedia that appealed to you?

The opportunity to be involved in these networks and this streaming platform seemed like the best of all worlds and an opportunity that I couldn't pass up. I have such a special place in my heart for HBO since [producing] Six Feet Under [there]. The idea of being in the modern world with a streaming platform is exciting to me. I'm really looking forward to it. Not that it's not going to be without its huge challenges, but it seems like one of the great companies to work for.

The timing comes a month and a half after NBCUniversal announced plans for its own streaming service, which is being overseen by Bonnie Hammer. Was there ever a part of you that was interested in remaining at Comcast and having a role in that streaming service? Or was it always going to be Hammer's to run?

I don't know about that. The conversations that we had about the streaming at NBC wasn't the kind of streaming service that I was really interested in doing. To be at a company with these brands — in particular HBO, which is a global brand — and the desire to do original programming … it's a different kind of animal than what NBCUniversal is doing. I was gone before the plans [for the streaming service] ever solidified over there. I wish them well and I couldn't be happier that the timing worked out that this job came to me.

Your mandate is to accelerate the investment and development of content. What do you see as the biggest challenge in doing that?

We are very much aware of the fact that this is a very difficult world to jump into. We know that Netflix has really gotten out there in such an incredible way with volume and are firmly entrenched. Amazon is out there and Disney is working away. We're cognizant of the fact that we're not the first or second company in there. There's going to be certain challenges to grabbing the attention of the consumer. But we knew that and I think there's room for more people to enter this space. You're only going to be as good as the experience you offer consumers. We're focused on taking the assets that we have — which includes arguably the greatest premium network in the world — and the Turner networks, the Warner Bros. assets, the motion picture and TV studios, both of which are the largest in class — and a huge library and putting these assets together and building them into something that's really interesting and robust. It will never be as voluminous as some of the other places, but I think we will eventually get to a place that has a really fantastic experience for consumers. DC is here — there's brands and talent here that we can continue to build into the future, and that's what we're all excited about.

Coming from a broadcast network to overseeing HBO, Turner networks and a streaming platform, what are you most looking forward to doing?

I'm excited about all of it. My career changes every few years from one venue to another. I loved being in broadcast, I loved being in premium cable — Showtime was a fantastic experience. Doing Six Feet Under was an incredible experience back in the day at HBO. I loved broadcast but I really love cable as well. The idea of a streaming service is very appealing to me because it really is the future. I'm excited to be a part of that.  

Where will your office be based?

I think predominantly in L.A., and running between New York and Atlanta as well. But I'll be spending the bulk of my time in L.A. 

Where in the WarnerMedia portfolio do you see the most room for improvement?

"Improvement" implies criticism. I think the challenge is going to be how do we grow these networks and the amount of programming we have so we get to a volume that's competitive but also so that we don't lose sight of the level of quality that these networks stand for, especially HBO. Everybody needs improvement and growth, but I don't know how to answer that.

You're overseeing HBO, TNT, TBS, TruTV and the streaming platform. How much autonomy will each network chief have?

I'm a big fan of giving people autonomy. I had that extraordinary group at NBC and they all really were running their divisions and I was happy about that. I intend to do that as well. I'm enthusiastic about what Casey Bloys has been doing and will continue to do at HBO. The same with Kevin Reilly [at the streaming service]. The streaming service is more of a startup and we're pulling that all together. But I love nothing more than people who are really good at what they do. I'm happy to help in any way I can. I will probably get somewhat involved in programming because it's what I love, but I really think it's going to be their companies to run. And then we've got to pull it all together at the streaming level — not only just HBO and Turner, but the other assets of this company, which is going to require a lot of interfacing with Kevin Tsujihara [chairman and CEO of the film unit and new global kids division], [Warner Bros. TV studio president] Peter Roth and even Jeff Zucker [who oversees news and sports] to a certain degree. That is also really exciting because this company has always been made up of several different companies that were almost independent of each other. And now we have a common goal with the streaming service. But they will all be separate companies and brands but we all have to come together on windowing and where things go and what's right for the service, which will make it a really interesting shared experience. 

How involved will you be with these brands? Reading scripts? Will you be in the room for pitches for each of the five brands? Will you be approving major show buys?

I think I may have passed my pitch days! (Laughing.) Unless someone needs me or wants me there. I'm happy to sit in for a pitch, but I don't think at this point in my life or in the lives of these guys who are here doing this that they need me in pitches. Will I be reading scripts? Probably, just because I like to. Every now and then I like to offer some suggestions and give some notes. But I think it will only be in a tangential way. Unless they want me! I think it's fun to collaborate if the need arises.

What have your conversations with WarnerMedia CEO John Stankey been like when it comes to the push for more HBO content?

He's been really great. He wants all of the volume to increase, but not at an oppressive way. It's just like, "How do we go about it in a smart way? What's fiscally responsible?" We agree on all these approaches that we're talking about. And it's still early — it's literally day one and I've yet to spend an inordinate amount of time with him getting into the details here. But so far, he's been very respectful of the existing companies and brands. He wants to do everything to support them and uplift them and isn't intending in any way to make them conform to some other kind of industry. It's been quite good so far.

HBO is getting a 50 percent increase in programming hours. What sort of conversations have you had with Casey Bloys about the nature of what types of programming will fill that space?

I haven't had any yet. I'm just literally getting underway here. Nothing in any detail has been discussed with Casey about programming at all.

Will Richard Plepler be replaced?

Like putting somebody in that job? I'm not sure yet. I don't know that we need that right away, anyway. I think I'm going to be here to do some of that. I want to empower Casey and his team. So I don't think we're on the hunt to fill that position. 

Which of his duties will you be taking on?

All of them eventually, because they're all going to report to me now.

You and Kevin Reilly were both one-time broadcast chiefs and rivals. What conversations have you had with him about what the streaming service will look like?

We haven't had any of those conversations yet. It really is my first day. Although we're old friends and we've communicated a little bit but we haven't sat down and started talking about any of these details yet. 

Reilly recently said it wasn't a good idea to share content like Friends. What's your position on keeping crown jewels like that on Netflix vs. keeping those shows exclusively for the Warner platform and bypassing hundreds of millions of dollars?

I wish I had a definitive answer for that. At the moment, this is the kind of tough conversation we have to have internally with all the stakeholders and decide what is the value and where should it lie. I could make one argument, Peter and Kevin can make another argument and I think we have to get together and talk it all through and have John Stankey help us navigate through it. These aren't easy conversations because you give up a lot in order to build something and that may be the ultimate goal and what we do, but it's premature to speculate yet. Part of me would love to have it exclusive on the service, but I'm not sure that is the right answer yet. 

What's the larger pitch to creatives for the streaming platform? Reilly has said there will be originals in 2020 after launching late this year in beta.

I don't know yet what the specifics would be except to say that I want this company, in every aspect, to be the most talent-friendly, talent-magnet company we can be. I think you already feel that to some degree at the movie studio and the TV studio and certainly at HBO and Turner. I want to push that agenda. I don't think all of the platforms out there have the same approach to talent that I would. That's no criticism; people do it in different ways. I would like to take what I've been doing all these years and know Peter Roth, Kevin Reilly and Casey Bloys have been doing all these years and amp it up to be a really great experience for talent. I say that knowing there are an infinite number of places for people to go. It's a huge challenge to be able to compete.

Will you compete for overall deals with top talent? The marketplace is currently exploding with eight- and nine-figure deals.

Yes, we will — in very measured doses and for people we really believe in. I don't have the specific list of names to give you of those people, but Warners went way out on a limb for Greg Berlanti and that was a major deal and that was a real reflection of what this company can do for the right people. There's not going to be a ton of those, but we'll be judicious and we'll be in the game when it really pays. It will be a one-by-one kind of consideration.

Is Warners in on the J.J. Abrams sweepstakes?

I should probably not comment on that! But look, I love J.J. and am a huge fan and we've worked together and nothing would make me happier than for us to keep him with this company. That said, I don't even know where that is at the moment.  

How much of the job in the coming weeks will be about managing morale there? What does that entail?

There's a fair amount of that because this company has been going through a transaction for almost two years, which is unfathomable to me. I came in at NBC after a company had gone through that for a year and it wasn't easy then. Things are unclear and uncertain and then you come in and you disrupt because you decide to do a reorganization. We have to be really sensitive to the culture and the morale. And I think I'm pretty good at that. I think everybody who is in this senior leadership team is good at that. I know there is a feeling among everybody here that it's really a time to move forward and there's a bit of a sigh of relief that they can finally now move. We've just got to be really smart and sensitive and it's not going to be easy. We're going to be careful as much as we can in these situations.

You've said you want to keep the HBO and Turner brands distinct. With originals from both earmarked for the direct-to-consumer streaming platform, how do you do that?

This is day one and a lot of it has to do with conversations that we have that are creative. Once shows go on to the streaming platform, I'm not sure that brand identity is that important because they're going to go into the shared space. That's more important for the linear experience. We know what HBO's brand is and I want to make sure that Turner's brands don't interfere with that or bump up against it too much because I don't know that that's necessary. But I have to really start to have those conversations with Kevin Reilly, [WarnerMedia head of original content] Sarah Aubrey and Casey and his group about what we really should be. As things get more voluminous, it's harder to be really distinct and clear because you just have natural areas that start to cross over, which isn't the end of the day. But I don't want to water those brands down or in any way cheapen them. That's what I meant by keeping them distinct.

Many of TBS' comedies have yet to be renewed and there has been speculation that originals from either TBS or TNT could be moved to the streaming platform. TNT's Sarah Aubrey is overseeing originals for streaming and Brett Weitz is now overseeing both networks. What is the larger plan for those cable brands as some TNT unscripted fare moves to TBS?

It's too early to have that conversation. I don't know yet enough about what all these networks do to really comment in an intelligent way. That's the fun of rolling up your sleeves on day one.

As WarnerMedia consolidates management, is a centralized development team on the table? How significant do you expect the layoffs to be?

We're getting into that right now. I don't think you're going to see massive layoffs because of companies being combined — a la Disney and Fox. Over next few months — and even longer — we'll look at what efficiencies we can come up with between the networks. It's going to be more in administrative functions. I'm not going to combine the creative groups of these networks into one group. That would erode their distinctive brands right off the bat. But there are some areas where we can do that. I'm sensitive to overthinking that, also. I think you have to keep real separation in some areas. We're going to work through that in the next few months. You're not going to see 500 people losing their jobs in next 10 days or anything crazy like that. It'll be thoughtful and methodical and we're going to try to be sensitive to what's been going on for the last two years.