The unique brand value and quintessence of HBO has, until quite recently, always been as much about what it doesn’t offer as what it does. For decades, Richard Plepler preserved the pay-TV service as a highly curated jewel box: a bespoke powerhouse for ambitious programming. It didn’t necessarily matter that Succession wasn’t a red-state ratings bonanza, or that its lauded documentaries seemed to pick up more Emmys than viewers. Part of the network’s identity was wrapped up in its auteur-friendly disposition, and blatant hand-waving at vulgar consumerism. (Plus, Game of Thrones already had that mainstream audience covered.)
But the media landscape was shifting as streaming devoured the cable market. In 2018, AT&T completed its acquisition of HBO’s parent company, TimeWarner, and vowed to significantly increase content production to compete with Netflix. HBO Max, the awkward stepchild of the Dallas-New York-Hollywood marriage, would combine prestige dramas like Six Feet Under with The Big Bang Theory in one middlebrow package.
The cultural tensions were foretold in a reportedly prickly town hall meeting in New York, shortly after the $85.4 billion deal closed, as Plepler sparred onstage with his soon-to-be boss, AT&T executive John Stankey. “We need hours a day … not hours a month,” Stankey told employees. “We’ve got to make money at the end of the day, right?”