HBO’s Richard Plepler and Author Malcolm Gladwell Convene at EMC Kick-Off

Incoming HBO CEO Richard Plepler and best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell came together at HBS last Tuesday for a lively discussion on the future of television at the Entertainment & Media Summit Kick-Off.

Students were still jostling for floor seats in an overflowing Aldrich classroom when Gladwell, sensing the energy in the room, began with a humble introduction:

“This is the only way I am ever going to get into Harvard, as the guest of someone invited to speak here,” he joked.

In the 90 minutes that followed, Gladwell guided the conversation as Plepler, who will officially assume the CEO role on January 1, discussed his views on the shifting entertainment landscape. He began by describing the changes he has witnessed at HBO since he joined Time Warner, the network’s parent company, in the mid-1990s.

“From 1995 to 2002, we ran one of the great insurgency campaigns of the modern entertainment industry,” Plepler said of a period that included Sex and the City and The Sopranos. “We put things on the air that were so different from what American television had seen before that we were looked at not only as a unique and original voice, but also as something almost preternatural in the entertainment industry.”

But the company began resting on its laurels, he said, and by 2007 its competitors were catching up. In that year, The New York Times ran an article to great publicity entitled, “HBO’s Rivals Say It Has Stumbled.” The fact that HBO turned down Mad Men and Breaking Bad, two shows which subsequently became big hits on rival network AMC, seemed to offer some legitimacy to this claim.

Plepler proceeded to dissect that period of HBO’s life, telling the audience that it provided a valuable management lesson.

“What happened to us, which is very instructive for any company or any business, is that we fell in love with what we were doing,” he reflected. “We got elected to the top of the entertainment firmament and we liked it there. We forgot the insurgent voice and we got arrogant.”

Plepler was promoted to Co-President in 2007 and helped usher in a new era for the network. After traveling across the country on a “listening tour” during which he spoke with Hollywood agents, producers, and actors, he concluded that what had made HBO successful in the past was its willingness to give creative freedom to its talent.

“The ‘Tipping Point’ of HBO was not Sex and the City or The Sopranos; it was The Larry Sanders Show,” he said, acknowledging Gladwell’s celebrated title. According to Plepler, The Larry Sanders Show, which ran in the early 1990s, awakened the creative community to the idea that HBO was a place where “painters could paint.”

“But we lost the very DNA which helped us get where we were, which is that talent wanted to be in our house,” he continued. “Then, talent didn’t want to be in our house. By 2002, there were other places to go and they went.”

In 2008, when producer Alan Ball approached Plepler with the idea for True Blood, he saw an opportunity for HBO to return to its old ways. Ball provided precisely the creative, original voice he needed and Plepler took on the project.

Three years later, when True Blood’s success became clear, others in the entertainment industry asked Plepler how he predicted the vampire craze in America before Twilight and The Vampire Diaries.

“I didn’t know anything about vampires,” he said. “All I saw was Alan Ball.”

Through his experience turning around HBO, Plepler learned that for content creators to be successful they must establish a “passionate engagement” with their audiences. Appropriately, his own connection with the students in attendance was certainly enthralling. Dressed in a blue blazer with a white pocket kerchief, Plepler was animated and regularly quoted his favorite TV personalities, even offering a few impersonations including a crowd-pleasing parody of Larry David.

If the room had been reserved all night, he might not have stopped. When an announcement was made that there was time for one more question, Plepler continued to speak for another 20 minutes, answering close to 10 additional inquiries from the crowd.

Several of the questions focused on the television industry’s future and specifically how Plepler envisioned leading HBO through an increasingly complex digital world full of disruptive technologies.

“The biggest disruption is that people will increasingly say, ‘I’ve got enough’ and no longer need HBO,” he asserted.

In response, he said, the company’s strategy must be to continue to produce great value, both through high-level content and its own technology. Specifically, HBO needs to invest in its own research and development. HBO GO, the company’s subscription service that offers the network’s original programming on a host of mobile devices, is an example of the company’s success in this realm.

Indeed, Plepler embraces innovation and said he wants to encourage greater collaboration between Northern California’s technology prowess and Southern California’s entertainment talent.

“I’d like to see the realization that we rely on each other,” he said. “I want to see working groups set up between each side so that we can move forward into the coming decade in tandem.”

“The iPad is cool,” he concluded. “But it’s cooler with HBO GO on it.”