HBO chief Richard Plepler explains his simple plan for staying ahead of Netflix

May 7, 2014
May 7, 2014

Richard Plepler, the CEO of HBO, had lunch with Steven Soderbergh today, and according to Plepler, the acclaimed director, producer and screenwriter had a memorable description for the premium channel. “HBO stands for good shit,” Plepler recounted Soderbergh as saying, during an interview at the New York Ideas forum (an event hosted by Quartz’s sister publication, The Atlantic and the Aspen Institute). ” That’s what HBO is all about. You do good shit.”

HBO, which is owned by media giant Time Warner, has been the US’s dominant player in making original, high-quality television for years. Suddenly, the advent of streaming video has made this market incredibly crowded. Netflix, Amazon, and even Yahoo (which has ordered two comedies) are jumping into it.

So how does HBO plan to stay on top? According to Plepler, by making itself “a magnet” where the best talent wants to work. He claimed that the company does not worry about ratings the day after a show debuts (he didn’t expect True Detective to be the hit that it was, for example), but rather whether it delivered on the company’s internal expectations of excellence.

“There is a surfeit of competition, a lot of people doing great work,” Plepler said.  “I say over and over again it’s not a zero-sum game, it’s fine for other people to do good work. As long as we are playing our game, to our full capacity, which is what we think about everyday, we are going to have more than our fair share of attention and acclaim. So that’s the focus. That’s the north star.”

“What you want is [Girls creator and star] Lena Dunham feeling that there is not a better place to work, because she is talking to her friends in the creative community, and she is saying this is an extraordinary experience.”

HBO recently struck a deal with Amazon, allowing the e-commerce giant to stream some older HBO shows through its Prime Instant Video service. But newer shows, like Game of Thrones,were excluded from the deal. While HBO has its own online streaming platform, HBO Go, only people with a full cable subscription (or friends to whom they’ve told their passwords) can use it. Plepler seemed to be deliberately vague as to whether that’s going to change anytime soon.

“HBO Go is a remarkable product, it will evolve and get better and better, and what I say all the time is that we will not be caught without the ability to pivot,” Plepler said. ” We think there is a still a lot of growth left in this business, and having an exciting digital product where you can watch HBO on your Playstation, on your Xbox, on your Kindle,on your iPad, that’s very important for a generation of young people who are getting their video in another place from the TV.”

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