HBO Boss Stands by 'Leaving Neverland,' Shares 'Game of Thrones' Expansion Plans

"'Game of Thrones' will be replaced by a more varied slate of programming," programming president Casey Bloys tells The Hollywood Reporter.
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Casey Bloys

HBO is heading into one of its most important years in its history.

The premium cable network has the most highly anticipated (scripted) TV event of the year: the final season of fantasy drama Game of Thrones, which has become a pop culture phenomenon. That will join the second season of awards darling Big Little Lies — with Meryl Streep! — as well as the final season of Veep, new cycles of Westworld and Barry and Damon Lindelof's take on beloved graphic novel Watchmen, among other series including the buzzy Euphoria.

With a mandate to do more from new corporate parent AT&T, HBO programming president Casey Bloys plans to increase originals (think scripted, talk shows and documentaries — like the controversial Leaving Neverland) by 50 percent. Those plans also include an HBO first: a Game of Thrones prequel series. The drama, currently in the pilot stage with star Naomi Watts, is the first time the cabler has gone back to the well of one of its originals. And it's an offshoot of one of what Bloys says is "one of the best shows in TV history."

The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Bloys on Friday at the Television Critics Association's winter press tour to talk about standing by his Michael Jackson doc Leaving Neverland, HBO's expansion plans and how he is taking a slow and specific approach to growing the Game of Thrones franchise.

You've set a premiere date for Leaving Neverland. Given the Jackson estate's comments that it's "a tabloid character assassination," do you have any trepidation about airing it?

Not at all. All I would ask is that anybody writing or thinking about it would watch it and reserve judgment until they see it. It's a very powerful documentary.

Are you prepared for potential backlash — or legal action — from the estate?

Yep. [We have] no plans to not air it.  

After the Sundance screening and the estate's comments, was there a conversation with HBO CEO Richard Plepler or AT&T CEO John Stankey about sticking with the controversial doc?

No. Let's be clear: What controversy? There were two protestors at Sundance. Reserve judgment and watch it and decide for yourself.

And if the protests grow louder?

We're standing by it. It's very, very powerful. 

Will you meet with the Jackson Estate given their newly released 10-page letter and claims that it ignores journalistic ethics?

No. The letter doesn't change anything. The show is airing. It's not changing because of the letter and I ask that everybody watch it and decide for themselves. It's a very, very powerful documentary and I think once they see it, they'll understand.

So, you have no interest in taking a meeting with the Jackson Estate?

No. There are no plans to take a meeting. We are airing the documentary, and the letter is not going to change that.

Moving on, you have one of the biggest TV events of the year coming in April with the series finale of Game of Thrones. What kind of impact has the show had for HBO — both as a network and a brand?

It is one of the best shows in TV history. We're happy to be the proud home of it. We couldn't be happier with how it's done for the network and how it's resonated within the culture. Obviously, we're going to miss it. But we're very proud of what the guys have achieved with the show. It's a landmark TV show.

Can you put into words what Game of Thrones has done in a bigger and broader sense for HBO?

We're proud of all the shows we do, but Game of Thrones is a really good example of [a series] that's well-crafted, well-acted, well-written, well-directed; it is hopefully a beacon for other creative people to see how we do things, the money we'll spend, the creative freedom we extend. It's a good reminder for the kinds of shows that we'd like to do.

And for the larger landscape, Game of Thrones is a global phenomenon that airs all over the world, has merchandising, a Super Bowl commercial… If The Sopranos was HBO's benchmark to illustrate its role as a network that will deliver premium, award-winning content, what has Game of Thrones done for you?

Said it in a different way! (Laughs.)

What's the latest on the prequel pilot and the other scripts in development?

We're looking at an early summer shoot date for the pilot and we're excited. SJ Clarkson is directing. Everything is moving ahead. We're excited. No other plans to pick up anything else until we get that one going and then we'll think about if there's any other one that we want to make. We really just want to get this one going, get it off to pilot and then we'll think about other options.

Have you seen the scripts for the other Game of Thrones offshoots in development?

I've seen some. (Laughs.) We're really focused on getting the pilot cast and off and shooting.

How would you describe your plan for what's next for the Game of Thrones franchise? If AMC is airing a version of The Walking Dead in every quarter, is that something you want to do as well?

It's a great world and great IP. We're going to do the pilot, see how it goes. Is it possible we do another one? Maybe. But I don't want HBO to become a network that airs just Game of Thrones or Game of Thrones prequels. It should be said that Game of Thrones has been an incredible show for us, but what we're doing is a much more diversified slate so that we're not in a position that we have to get the Game of Thrones franchise up and running or the lights are going out at HBO. That is not the situation and it never has been.

So you don't want to do anything that would dilute the brand?

We're not going all-in Game of Thrones all the time. I do think it would be crazy not to try the prequel and to see what else is out there, because George R.R. Martin has created this incredible universe and there's a lot of different places you can go. But we want to be careful not to overdo it. One of the things that Richard and I have been doing for the past three years is diversifying the slate so that we're not in a position where it's just one show defining the network. When people ask the question: 'What are you going to do after Game of Thrones?," I think, look, when Game of Thrones premiered in 2011, it is a wildly different media landscape. What you're going to see is Game of Thrones will be replaced by a more varied slate of programming. It's not going to be one show. I don't know that it's possible to launch a gigantic show like this again in this media environment. Who knows?! But for us, what makes sense is making sure that we have a lot of shows that hit a lot of our subscribers. If you look, over this past year, we've had Westworld, Succession, Sharp Objects, True Detective, My Brilliant Friend…

And coming up, you've got some high-profile shows like Watchmen

We've got Watchmen, Euphoria, Big Little Lies season two … we're trying to keep the slate full and varied. Honestly, that is the future as opposed to one show defining the brand. We have a new show from Danny McBride, we have Succession season two, His Dark Materials with the BBC, Chernobyl — which is excellent.

How will you use the final season to launch your upcoming slate?

Obviously, it is a great promotional platform for us. You will see trailers for lots of shows coming up later in the year. Barry will come after it, which I think is a great platform for that. But honestly, it's the promo time during the shows that I am guessing you will have a very good idea of all the shows airing in the second half of the year.

As part of AT&T's mandate to increase originals and its plans for the WarnerMedia streaming service, could you have one prequel on HBO and a second on that platform?

I'm focused on the pilot prequel. There is no grand plan to come up with a series of shows … I don't think that's the best use of the IP for us. We like to do things a bit more selectively. That's not the direction we're headed.

In success, you like the prequel. When is that on the air?

I have no idea.

Where will the Game of Thrones library live given the WarnerMedia SVOD platform?

Within HBO. It's for HBO subscribers. It'll be within the HBO part of the WarnerMedia platform.

HBO is expanding to Mondays as part of AT&T's order to do more originals. How would you characterize the budgets you're working with now vs. what you've had in the past?

Healthier! (Laughs.) Budget-wise, I won't get into. But in terms of the number of hours, it's 50 percent more. The important thing to note about the expansion of the programming is that this is all programming that we would have done if we were only programming Sundays. There's no programming that we're doing that we wouldn't have done five years ago. It's all high-quality, interesting programming. … We're doing all the things that we have done [programming and genre-wise], we're just fortunate now that we can do more of it.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.