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A Game of Thrones spinoff? How about two Game of Thrones spinoffs? Actually, how about five? Under new WarnerMedia CEO John Stankey’s plan for the premium cable network, the sky seemingly is the limit.
Hollywood agents and executives returned to work Monday after a weeklong holiday break with questions and concerns about the future of HBO following a New York Times report that detailed a June town hall in which Stankey — the AT&T executive who now oversees the premium network — outlined his plans to make it bigger and broader.
Stankey, during a discussion with HBO CEO Richard Plepler in front of 150-plus employees, warned that the next year would be “tough” (akin to “childbirth”) as he hopes to grow cable’s crown jewel into a larger destination to better compete with deep-pocketed streamers like Netflix and Amazon — with Apple on the horizon — that increasingly dominate the industry. Stankey promised additional resources but warned of structural changes to grow HBO beyond its brand of one-night-a-week high-quality scripted originals, which he believes can increase subscribers and bring more eyeballs to the network while also gathering more customer data.
Below, The Hollywood Reporter looks at some of the biggest burning questions that surround HBO’s future in the wake of AT&T’s Time Warner acquisition. (HBO declined to comment on Stankey’s remarks.)
1. Can HBO maintain the quality while dramatically increasing the quantity?
HBO defined its brand with the aspirational tagline, “It’s not TV, it’s HBO.” As Stankey looks to expand the network’s footprint, many industry insiders stressed that quality will have to come first. While Netflix has spent lavishly to offer scripted originals for multiple demos (children’s shows, animation, sci-fi, LGBTQ, etc.), few would argue that all Netflix programming comes with same stamp of “quality.” It’s unlikely that HBO will become a destination for a show like Fuller House, but Plepler et al need to think about how the brand could suffer if quality concessions start to be made to achieve volume. (Some would even argue they cannot necessarily go hand in hand.) “You refer to HBO as a chic restaurant where it’s tough to get a reservation and Netflix is an all-you-can-eat buffet,” says one top TV agent of the different brands. Still, others stressed that the likely cash infusion paired with opening new nights of programming will help HBO land some of the high-end packages that have generated multiple-outlet bidding wars. “The question,” one exec asks, “is can you have more and can it be all good? Can you maintain that quality?”
2. How much of a cash infusion will AT&T provide?
HBO’s annual programming budget has been in the $2 billion ballpark, say sources, which pales in comparison to the $8 billion Netflix is spending this year. Amazon, meanwhile, has another $4.5 billion to play with; Hulu clocks in at $2.5 billion; and Apple has at least $1 billion earmarked for originals. It’s unclear how much HBO’s budget will be increased by AT&T, but Plepler and chief programmer Casey Bloys will have to start spending big in a very competitive landscape to bolster the development pipeline. “They’ve become a destination for movie star television. Can they continue to spend that much and compete when everyone is spending a lot and doing high-profile stuff?” one exec wonders.
3. Will HBO staff up?
Many industry insiders polled are split on whether the ramped-up programming will force HBO to increase its executive ranks under Bloys. Netflix, for instance, grants greenlight power to several executives under chief content officer Ted Sarandos, which has allowed the service to keep its pipeline stocked at a faster pace. HBO historically takes a slow and deliberate approach to its development, which has been one of the knocks on the network, and Bloys (and usually Plepler) must weigh in on all green lights. Will Stankey’s plan to grow HBO force the network to speed up its process? “HBO is super precious, that’s their brand. They need to be less precious if they want to succeed in today’s world,” says one agent, of course acknowledging that the new push for “broader” content means less prestigious writers might now have a great shot of landing an HBO show.
4. Can HBO maintain a sense of appointment viewing when adding additional nights of programming?
Starting with The Sopranos and Sex and the City (and continuing through Westworld and Game of Thrones), HBO owns Sunday night. Will opening up a second (or even third) night of programming dilute HBO’s brand? “Once you open more nights with more content, the interesting thing is you lose your appointment viewing,” notes one exec with an agency and network background. Says another: “HBO is a great place to work but they were limited because they only had one night of programming and only had space for a certain number of shows.” That will likely change.
5. Exactly how much content will HBO look to buy?
HBO once was known in insider circles for playing defense: buying scripts to take them off the market even though execs were unlikely to make them because there was no room on the schedule. Every agent THR spoke with for this story was practically salivating at the idea that HBO could go on offense, buying a ton of material and actually making it all. As an example, one source suggests HBO greenlight more than one of the multiple Game of Thrones offshoots in development and have a piece of that franchise on the air every six months. “The HBO of old is not going to succeed in the media age. People demand more for their monthly subscription and they deserve more for the money,” one says. “It used to be if you had one big thing a month — a Chris Rock comedy special or a series, people would stick with you but that’s not happening anymore. That’s what Stankey is talking about.”
6. Could an HBO buying spree be good news for Warner Bros. Television?
Who is going to produce all this new content for HBO? Corporate sibling Warner Bros. TV could be the answer. HBO traditionally makes (and owns) its own shows, but in a volume game it may not be possible. That’d be welcome news to WBTV president Peter Roth, who has been forced to give up ownership stakes to land series orders on outside networks. HBO could use WBTV as a secondary studio and WarnerMedia would retain 100 percent ownership. A caveat: HBO and Warners have not always seen eye-to-eye. HBO took over as lead studio on Westworld after WBTV wanted to put a financial cap on the swelling budget. But a parent company’s mandate could be a powerful incentive to work together. What’s more, could HBO — which has rarely relied on outside studios like 20th Century Fox TV — start to open its doors to new sellers? “To increase volume, you have to be open to co-productions with outside studios — you can’t get that much material otherwise, there are too many buyers,” another agent says.
7. Will growth be on HBO’s linear networks or on HBO Go?
While Stankey is looking to add “hours a day” of content to compete with streamers like Netflix, many top agents wondered if the conglomerate would start to program scripted originals exclusively for HBO Go. CBS has found some success with its subscription video on demand platform, CBS All Access — which programs Star Trek: Discovery and The Good Wife spinoff — but HBO Go offers only a library of existing content. Strict carriage deals with cable and satellite companies typically require that all HBO content air on the linear network, but for how long? Stankey clearly sees growth in the digital ecosystem. “Do you load up HBO Go with originals and turn to OTT instead of opening up more nights?” one insider ponders.
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