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HBO ‘trying to build addicts’ out of new demographics, CEO says

HBO CEO Richard Plepler poses for a portrait at the Toronto premier of the new television show Vinyl at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Feb. 10, 2016.


HBO's chief executive officer, Richard Plepler, is a devoted runner, so when he visited Toronto last Wednesday, he squeezed in a jog before dinner. "I was about halfway through my run and I just said: 'This is seriously cold. This is not even New York,'" he says. "This is the real thing here."

Later that night, the reception was much warmer in a screening room at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Mr. Plepler came to town to promote Vinyl, his network's newest drama about a 1970s record label trying to reinvent itself amid a libertine haze of sex and drugs, which premieres on Sunday.

The evening's host was Bell Media, a division of BCE Inc., which inked a long-term partnership with HBO last November, snagging the rights to HBO's shows and brand across Canada as Corus Entertainment Inc. bowed out of its pay-TV business in the western provinces.

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As a premium television network that relies on subscriptions, HBO has been trying to strike a tricky balance, sustaining its TV base while extending a hand to an audience that can be reached only online.

Ambitious TV series such as Game of Thrones and Veep are what helped the network take home an industry-leading 43 Emmy Awards last fall, capturing a youthful audience. But many HBO subscribers still display a more traditional TV mindset – 40 per cent watch only movies on the network.

"We're trying to build addicts, okay, across a wide variety of demographics," Mr. Plepler says in an interview at the downtown offices of Bell Media. Increasingly, that means branching out to "catalyze a whole new group of people to get excited about our network," he says.

At its core, HBO's pitch remains the same. For years, the network has sought to set itself apart from conventional commercial television, which caters to advertisers as much as viewers, by crafting a reputation for high-quality, edgy, cinematic television that's worth paying extra for. Mr. Plepler describes this mission in almost evangelical terms. "Artists are sacred," he says, and "the artist's voice is the transcendent voice."

Since last April, when the network launched HBO Now, its much-anticipated standalone streaming service, it has used the platform to pitch talent with the promise of freedom from the TV guide's half-hour and hour-long blocks.

When Mr. Plepler was courting Jon Stewart, the former host of The Daily Show who has since signed a four-year deal with HBO, Mr. Stewart asked how long his new program should be. Mr. Plepler replied, "It should be however long you think it should be."

Former ESPN personality Bill Simmons and film director Steven Soderbergh are among those also pitching short-form projects.

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HBO Now has attracted 800,000 American subscribers at $14.99 (U.S.) a month, and the network is planning a standalone streaming service in Spain, after analyzing factors such as broadband penetration and brand recognition.

But it won't be coming to Canada any time soon. Bell Media's deal includes coveted digital rights, meaning acclaimed shows such as Girls and True Detective will stream on Bell's CraveTV north of the border, alongside content from rival networks such as Showtime.

Country by country, the calculation "isn't that complicated," Mr. Plepler says. "This is just a business decision based on where we think the most profits lie."

To critics who predicted that HBO Now would cannibalize the network's profitable base, Mr. Plepler delights in pointing out that less than 1 per cent of TV subscribers left to take up HBO Now. For the foreseeable future, he predicts, "most of our growth is going to occur in the traditional ecosystem."

But he is keenly aware that viewers have a wider array of entertainment options to choose from than ever before, and to guard against the complacency that he thinks plagued HBO at times in the past, he has tried to instill a culture of "always being, in a healthy way, slightly unsettled.

"It's how I wake up every day, sometimes in the middle of the night," he says, "and it's how everybody on the [HBO team] wakes up."

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HBO subscribers by the numbers

2.7 million: subscribers to HBO in Canada

800,000: Number of paying U.S. subscribers to HBO Now (a streaming service available without a TV subscription for $14.99 [U.S.] a month). Launched last April, it is not available in Canada.

40: Percentage of HBO subscribers who watch only movies on the service

43: Emmy Awards won by HBO last fall, the most of any network

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About the Author
Banking Reporter

James Bradshaw is banking reporter for the Report on Business. He covered media from 2014 to 2016, and higher education from 2010 to 2014. Prior to that, he worked as a cultural reporter for Globe Arts, and has written for both the Toronto section and the editorial page. More


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