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At crossroads, HBO must guard its throne

Meg James and Stephen Battaglio, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

AT&T executives, who renamed the company WarnerMedia, often talk about movies and TV as a means to keep its mobile phone customers hooked on their tiny screens. Then last month came a shakeup in HBO's management, raising questions about potential changes in programming.

"They've had this management shakeup with the chief executive and other members of the creative team leaving," said Deana Myers, research director for S&P Global Markets Intelligence. "So you have to wonder, what direction is the company going to go? It feels like it is in limbo right now."

Internal hand-wringing that typically comes with ownership changes escalated once HBO's longtime chairman, Richard Plepler, announced his departure in late February to make way for AT&T managers to install their own team.

Bob Greenblatt, former NBC Entertainment chairman, was named chairman of the newly christened WarnerMedia Entertainment group, in charge of HBO and the Turner general entertainment channels. Other senior HBO executives have left, too, as the company looks to consolidate operations.

Greenblatt, in an interview last month, acknowledged that HBO needed to increase its pipeline of programming, one of the AT&T mandates. Even before he arrived, HBO had increased the number of original scripted episodes by 50% compared with last year.

"We are in a volume world, we all know that. But we are never going to be in the volume world of Netflix," he said. "We couldn't deliver 10 times the number of shows that we do on HBO now, even if the purse strings were just flowing. But we have to ramp up over the next few years."

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There are concerns among some within the company that HBO will no longer be a crown jewel but a chief supplier for WarnerMedia's planned video streaming service. One WarnerMedia executive who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the approach risks taking the TV equivalent of a flagship luxury store off Rodeo Drive and putting it into a shopping mall.

Greenblatt said the goal isn't to downgrade HBO's fare. "I really want it to be the great network it has always been," he said.

AT&T executives have asked HBO to increase its output, raising fears that the commitment to quality might be diluted.

Greenblatt, however, is no stranger to the concept of delivering prestige programs for a mass audience. He produced "Six Feet Under," one of the early original HBO series hits. Before running NBC's entertainment, Greenblatt was the programming head of HBO's main premium cable rival, Showtime, where he transformed the channel with such hits at "Dexter," "Weeds" and "Nurse Jackie."

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