HBO Head Richard Plepler Says Regulators Need Not Worry About Price Hikes at Network

Richard Plepler - Getty - H 2017
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The CEO said it wouldn't make sense for AT&T to increase the price Time Warner charges distributors to carry HBO should the two companies be allowed to merge.

One knock against the AT&T-Time Warner merger is that, if approved, consumer groups and regulators fear it would encourage the giant telecommunications company to charge competitors like Dish Network, Comcast and Verizon more for HBO, thus making it harder for viewers to afford the premium network.

Rest assured, though, that will not be the case, HBO CEO Richard Plepler said Wednesday at the Ignition conference in New York City.

Plepler said it would be "dis-economic" for AT&T to pursue such a strategy, stressing that HBO has grown to 130 million subscribers worldwide by offering popular content at a low price.

"We have strove to do the exact opposite," the exec said. "We have strove to lower prices, not raise prices, because we saw growth in scale and penetration."

Plepler also gave the U.S. Justice Department a gentle dig for suing to stop the AT&T-Time Warner deal. "There's never been a vertical merger in 40 years that's been upended," he told Henry Blodget, the CEO of Business Insider, which hosts the Ignition conference.

Blodget asked Plepler to predict the next show that could become as popular as Game of Thrones, and the HBO executive listed a few titles, like Succession, about strife among a global-media family (some have likened it to the real-life saga of Sumner Redstone, but Plepler said Tuesday it is not based on actual people) and Lovecraft Country, about race relations in the 1950s. Plepler said writers on Lovecraft delivered what "may be the best first script we've seen in a long time."

Ultimately, though, he told Blodget it's impossible to predict which shows will become pop-culture phenomenons and which ones will not.

"You never know where the next great thing is," he said. "Anyone who tells you we knew Thrones was gonna be Thrones is completely full of shit."

Plepler also noted that there are multiple Thrones spinoffs in the works and five bibles have been submitted. He said he'd rather bet on Thrones than bid against Amazon for the TV rights to Lord of the Rings, for which the streamer paid more than $200 million.

"If I'm Jeff Bezos, that's Monopoly money," Plepler quipped.

He also said that those who predicted that HBO Now would cannibalize the traditional service were wrong, noting that HBO is on track to post its biggest yearly growth in history, when additions at both the digital service and TV service are combined.

Blodget also criticized media executives who, seven years ago, considered Netflix a "joke" instead of a legitimate competitive threat.

"I did not think Netflix was a joke," Plepler shot back.