Michael Fuchs, who was HBO’s CEO in the early 1980s, was both innovative and famously argumentative with producers or with the press. I never got past the five minute mark in my conversations with Fuchs without a dispute flaring – I even kept a chart on the timing of our clashes. Fuchs didn’t trust reporters who wrote about HBO and didn’t much want his shows written about anyway.
Given this background, Richard Plepler’s climb to the top of the HBO pyramid struck many as the ultimate irony.
Some reporters, as well as producers, were downright skeptical: How could this eager young man with a background in publicity gain clout among the town’s creatives? His garrulous style seemed wrong for a CEO; so did his permanent suntan.
The skepticism was misplaced. Plepler’s creative and promotional zeal energized HBO over the years and boosted recognition not only of his shows but those across the cable universe. To Plepler, a new show was a cause for celebration. So was an Emmy campaign. At a moment when the crowded landscape of production had become a giant blur, Plepler’s showmanship seemed all the more vital.
Plepler quit last week, as did several other top executives at the corporate maze of WarnerMedia, triggering a climate of angst and confusion. The self-described “bell heads” at AT & T had big plans to step up production at HBO and promote synergies and consolidations, leaving many in Hollywood to wonder: Would their plans simply exacerbate the blur? Who would now champion the individual shows and showmen?
Plepler’s exit has been followed by that of David Levy, who ran the Turner networks. Both were now supposed to report to John Stankey of AT & T. Other imminent exits are rumored; at least six WarnerMedia executives have departed since the $85 billion acquisition. The WarnerMedia PR machine has planted positive interviews about Kevin Tsujihara, the Time Warner chief, but Toby Emmerich, his film studio production chief, has kept such a low profile that he is not even mentioned in Tsujihara’s pieces. With Aquaman and Crazy Rich Asians, the studio deftly reversed its slide.
Why did Plepler depart? Clearly the new AT&T structure would not accommodate the autonomy to which he had become accustomed. Not only would the bell heads invade his domain but so inevitably would Bob Greenblatt, the former NBC entertainment chairman who had been in talks with Stankey about a new corporate gig that was announced this morning.
Plepler’s sudden exit was dramatically on display last weekend at a glittery HBO party at New York’s Porter House celebrating the Alex Gibney-directed docu on the rise and fall of Theranos’ founder Elizabeth Holmes The Inventor: Out For Blood In Silicon Valley. About 200 filmmakers and journalists who had gathered for the occasion noticed that the assemblage at the power table was downbeat. The seat marked by the Plepler name card was empty.
It seemed appropriate. Plepler loved his parties and loved the glitz. As a former publicist, it came naturally to him. Intelligent and well read, Plepler not only understood the importance of a ‘good press’ but also loved the intrigues of the journalistic and political wars. He also understood that members of the press coveted HBO’s attention and fiscal rewards. Media figures like Graydon Carter and Frank Rich received producing credit on some HBO shows. (Full disclosure: Sheila Nevins, then HBO’s chief of documentaries, commissioned a documentary titled Boffo from Variety in 2006 on which I was an executive producer, before Plepler became HBO’s top dog).
A dinner party at Plepler’s town house always combined a stellar mix of media figures – a politico, a boxing champion and a movie star. Plepler also spent lavishly to publicize his shows and his filmmakers. The HBO brand was heralded at red carpet premiers for Game of Thrones and even for lesser shows like Eastbound and Down (“halo events,” he called them). HBO spent lavishly, and will brilliant success, on Emmy events.
To Plepler, HBO was all about thinking big. He winced when Randall Stephenson, CEO of A&T, speculated at an investor conference about big HBO shows being re-invented as 20 minute episodes aimed a ‘a mobile environment.’ The chief bell head admitted that such speculation would “cause Plepler to panic.”
He called that one right.