A small earthquake struck the TV industry in L.A. last week. Richard Plepler, chairman and CEO of HBO, announced he was leaving the premium cable outlet. He’d spent 27 years there, rising from the publicity department to become CEO, and under his tenure, HBO launched Game of Thrones, Veep, True Blood, The Newsroom and Girls.
His departure comes in a context familiar in the Canadian industry – bluntly put, the phone company takes over the broadcaster. In this instance the shake-up at HBO is a result of AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner, HBO’s parent company.
There are multiple worrisome aspects to the situation. All TV, from network to cable and streaming is being reconfigured as corporate takeovers begin to have impact and multiple giants set out to battle Netflix. Is this the end of everything good? Maybe. And here’s why.
First, media consolidation usually means the death of freewheeling creativity and it’s clear that AT&T does not see HBO as the prestige, boutique and unique cable content company it has been. This golden age of TV is generally taken to have dawned when HBO began airing The Sopranos in 1999. HBO has been the gold standard, with everyone from Showtime to Netflix to FX attempting to create content at the same level of quality. Any diminishing of HBO’s quality-level is a diminishing of this entire age of TV. And, according to multiple reports in the TV trade press, AT&T wants more quantity, not more quality, from HBO. Its boutique, standalone era is over.
Second, the inside shifts at HBO arrive just as the streaming wars are about to start. This time next year, there will be a lot more content available online, some of it in Canada. AT&T, like others, is gearing up to challenge Netflix for subscribers and is willing to spend a lot of money doing that. A mind-boggling amount of money is being spent acquiring creators, producers, directors and star actors. The worrisome aspect here is that the money is going to already-established talent. It is beginning to look like an out-of-the-blue series such as Lena Dunham’s Girls is unlikely to emerge in this new landscape.
Plepler’s departure from HBO was quickly followed by news that AT&T has hired Robert Greenblatt to run much of its Warner platforms. That will include WarnerMedia, which will launch as a streaming service later this year. Greenblatt, who ran NBC for some years, is a curious figure in the industry. When he arrived at NBC, he was affable and open with TV critics during the mid-season and summer press tours. He came with reputation as a smart exec, having guided prestige shows such as Weeds, Nurse Jackie and Dexter to success at Showtime.
At NBC he took the network back to the top of the ratings with an anomalous menu that included The Voice, This Is Us, the critically acclaimed The Good Place and a bunch of ordinary, Chicago-set procedurals. As the ratings went up, Greenblatt stopped talking to TV critics and then just stopped coming to the semi-annual gatherings. He went from curious figure to mysterious. Now he has to guide a vast empire of TV, from HBO to TBS, TNT and the alternative comedy channel truTV. Where he takes it is an open question, but AT&T spent more than US$85-billion to acquire Time Warner and, one suspects, it intends to generate cash, not golden age TV.
The future of HBO is not the only worrying question, because what AT&T is doing is not the only media consolidation under way. In its new ventures, AT&T will be competing with Disney’s new streaming service, which is almost ready to go, now that it has acquired a lot of Fox content, including FX, which has been HBO’s main competition in terms of quality and Emmy awards. The best curated channel on the TV landscape it brought us The Shield, Sons of Anarchy, Justified, Fargo and The Americans. What Disney does with it is an open question but, again, media consolidation rarely allows freewheeling creativity to continue.
Meanwhile, there’s the other issue with money. Netflix gave Ryan Murphy a US$300-million development deal; it gave Shonda Rhimes a US$100-million deal. Warner just gave Mindy Kaling what is believed to be a US$50-million deal to develop content over the next few years. Apple and Disney are also paying vast sums to creators for upcoming content. This is great for some, but it is also limiting. As Tim Goodman of the Hollywood Reporter put it, “TV outlets want one person to create 10 shows instead of 10 people creating 10 shows because that one person they gave all the money to is “proven” and thus a better bet, according to their thinking.” You see where this is going? Well, it will be harder for newcomers to gain a foothold when so much money is already tied up in established people. And who knows if that expensive talent can actually keep being original and bold?
This golden age of TV exists because risks were taken by people who made idiosyncratic choices, and took a chance on unproven talent. The departure of one HBO executive might not seem seismic but the ripple effects could mean the end of originality and all that inventiveness we have taken for granted.