HBO CEO discusses future of media, entertainment

On Tuesday night, HBO CEO Richard Plepler spoke to students about his company’s strides toward diversity and appropriately representative shows in the context of the contemporary political climate. (Emily Smith | Daily Trojan)

Over the past few years, the competitiveness of the entertainment industry has grown exponentially with the rise of streaming services. However, Richard Plepler, HBO’s Chairman and CEO, said that media’s changing landscapes do not diminish his optimism for the company’s success at Wallis Annenberg Hall Tuesday.

In the discussion moderated by Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism Dean Willow Bay, Plepler started by explaining how HBO’s chooses what content to publish.

“People always say, ‘What defines a HBO show? What are you looking for? What are you thinking about?’ It’s a pretty simple answer: We’re looking to elevate the brand,” Plepler said. “Every time smart storytellers come in the office and have an idea that we think lifts the brand up into popular culture and into our public discussion, whether that’s a documentary, a miniseries or a show.”

Plepler also detailed how two HBO shows are adding to the national conversation around politics: “Axios,” which delivers news coverage and insight through interviews and profiles, and “Vice News,” a news documentary series that looks deeper into both domestic and global issues. He said both of these shows provide educational and politically engaging content to younger audiences in particular.

The number of HBO subscribers amount to a quarter of households in the United States that watch television.  Plepler also claims that the number of views “Vice News” garners in one night equals the the numbers that networks like CNN and Fox get.

“I think that [the views] show an appetite for smart content and for beginning to organize complexity for the world in a very confusing time,” Plepler said.

Despite competition from other media conglomerates, Plepler said that HBO is focusing on producing content that audiences want.

“A brand is a promise,” Plepler said. “Every brand is making a promise to their consumer. You better deliver the implicit promise that you are making. Our promise is the curation of excellence and the curation of quality.”

The success of all programs is backed by the increase in subscribers, according to Plepler. Since the launch of HBO’s streaming platform HBO GO two years ago, the network’s viewers have increased significantly, and the company hopes to continue to grow with new shows airing in 2019.

In light of box office hits like “Black Panther” and “Crazy Rich Asians,” Plepler also discussed the importance of widening the media aperture to represent different groups that better reflect the country.

“If we’re doing our job right across the canvas, across the gallery, we’re listening for all of those different voices,” Plepler said. “If you do it right, you will have a mosaic and everyone knows it when they see it.”

From Plepler’s perspective, diversity in actors, writers and directors is key to the development of HBO because it provides intelligence, voice and a range of expression.

Plepler also came to talk at Annenberg April 2017 and collaborated with the school to launch the Diverse Voices Forums last October. The year-long series was created to educate students of the importance of diversity in the entertainment industry, connecting them to professionals from HBO.

Given increased diversity in upcoming HBO shows like “Euphoria,” which focuses on high school students’ struggles with drugs, sex and identity, Plepler sees a bright future for the company as long as it continues to fulfill its mission to create quality content.