Keshet Media Group’s Innovative Television conference kicked off in Jerusalem this morning with executives from the likes of HBO, AMC, eOne, MTV, ITV and Sony Pictures Television in town to discuss challenges and changes facing the industry. After meeting with former Israeli president Shimon Peres on Friday, attendees toured the Old City and screened the first episode of local son Gideon Raff’s USA series Dig on Saturday before getting down to business today. First up, HBO Chairman and CEO Richard Plepler sat down with Keshet Media CEO Avi Nir to chat about original voices and what’s behind the company’s new deal with Apple. He also offered up a cautionary tale involving hubris, complacency and Mad Men.
Plepler is a 20+-year veteran at the pay-TV network and has held his current title since 2013. Waxing on the past two decades, and with the benefit of hindsight, he suggested the service had become complacent early in the ’00s. “In my opinion, here’s the arc: From 1995-2002, I think HBO ran one of the great creative insurgent campaigns in the history of my time in entertainment. We really had the ear for what made an original voice and we trusted those artists to come in and do what they did.”
That was the period that spawned iconic shows like The Sopranos, Band Of Brothers, Oz and The Wire. “And then, I think what happened,” Plepler said, is that “a little bit of hubris set in and as can often be the case when you have that kind of success over time, we thought we had a magic formula and I think that we got a little bit complacent. From ’02 to ’07, we made some mistakes. I think we started playing to keep that position and we forgot the original voice that got us to the dance to begin with. If you forget for two seconds that the artist is the key and you think somehow people sitting in my chair or (other executives) are the key, you are in serious trouble because it is all about the artist.”
Talking about what makes HBO a good home for those artists, Plepler said, “I believe culture eats strategy for breakfast. There’s a plethora of competition now. If you’re slow or you’re arrogant, there’s plenty” of other places people will go. It’s also about “manners,” Plepler added. It’s, “How do you say no to artists so they understand you’re not rejecting them… You want them to come back.”
Asked to pick three shows he wishes were on his network, Plepler made a beeline for Mad Men, a drama that was “born inside our halls” when Matthew Weiner was working on The Sopranos. “Hubris and complacency are the reason that Mad Men did not land at HBO,” he said very simply, comparing the debacle to New Coke which taught the folks at Coca-Cola a thing or two. “Mad Men was actually a case study for us in the dangers of hubris; and so I watch Mad Men as a fan.”
Talk then turned to the new deal HBO announced last week that will see the premium cable service launch as a stand-alone on the Apple TV and in Apple’s App Store next month. HBO Now won’t require a separate subscription from a pay-TV provider — and it’s a step towards having HBO available essentially everywhere. “In 10 years we’re going to have a big business with big cable companies, big business with satellite, big business with telco affiliates and big business with Apple and Amazon and Google and Sony and Samsung. We’re going to have business with everybody,” Plepler promised.
The Apple deal adds “another dimension for our current consumers and our future consumers to get our network. That’s a great thing.”
What people really want, the exec said, is “a video package that is affordable and accessible to them.” There is a notion out there, he said, that everybody wants their content direct. “Some do, some don’t.” He then set a challenge to distributors. “Turbo charge your offer with us. We help make your package stickier. Use us.”