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The house of the Sopranos is below siege: Contained in the battle for the soul of HBO

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Mixed pictures of AT&T CEO John Stankey (L)and john stankey WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar.


In December 2018, John Stankey sat down with HBO CEO Richard Plepler and his management staff.

Stankey, the AT&T veteran operating WarnerMedia on the time, was assembly with division heads to listen to concepts on easy methods to fight the risk from Netflix and the secular decline of cable tv. This was the primary time Stankey had heard from Plepler’s full staff about their plan.

HBO was the crown jewel of Time Warner, which AT&T had not too long ago acquired for $100 billion with debt. It took two years and a authorized battle with the Trump administration to shut the deal. It was the most important media acquisition for the reason that final time Time Warner was acquired in 2000, when America On-line paid $162 billion. All that effort and cash was a bit confounding to individuals. Why did a phone firm have to personal a premium content material enterprise?

Stankey was the driving drive behind the acquisition, and the clear favourite to take over as the subsequent CEO of AT&T. Its success or failure would hinge on HBO, which already had greater than 30 million subscribers and a sterling fame in Hollywood and with shoppers.

In response to 5 individuals accustomed to the assembly, Plepler laid out a easy path ahead:

First, give HBO more cash to spend on content material.

Second, increase the Cinemax premium TV channel with extra family-friendly authentic, library, and licensed kids’s programming.

Third, promote HBO and Cinemax collectively for a pair {dollars} greater than HBO — round $17 monthly.

Fourth, hammer out a cope with Comcast, the biggest U.S. cable firm, permitting the broadband distributor to promote HBO Go on to broadband-only clients.

Lastly, and most significantly, do not blow HBO up.

Plepler’s staff estimated this plan would assure $7.5 billion in annual income plus future upside relying on the success of the brand new content material.

Stankey heard them out. Then, he ignored their recommendation. Stankey had larger ambitions for streaming video. Lower than three months later, Plepler introduced he was leaving WarnerMedia.

As an alternative, Stankey determined to make use of HBO because the centerpiece for a brand new mission: Construct a real Netflix competitor, dubbed HBO Max. When Stankey took over as AT&T’s CEO this 12 months, he handed that objective to new WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar, who beforehand launched Hulu. HBO Max launched in Could.

Alongside the best way, Stankey has dismantled the outdated Time Warner, spurring dozens of executives from all elements of the corporate to depart. He’s making an attempt to funnel the entire firm’s sources from cable, movie, and HBO into HBO Max, as he informed CNBC final 12 months.

Disney, Comcast’s NBCUniversal and ViacomCBS are all going by means of comparable adjustments now to arrange for a world the place subscription streaming companies overtake cable because the world’s main type of tv consumption. Stankey — the MBA-buzzword, deep-voiced telephone man — was forward of the pattern.

Nonetheless, his imaginative and prescient has irritated some veteran WarnerMedia executives, who query Stankey’s data of media. The execution of his mission, which Kilar has overseen since Could, has to this point been marred by strategic confusion and tradition clashes, in accordance with greater than a dozen high-ranking WarnerMedia staff, about half of whom have left the corporate prior to now six months.

For now, traders don’t love what they see. AT&T is buying and selling close to a 10-year low. In the meantime Verizon, AT&T’s closest competitor, is buying and selling close to an all-time excessive. Essentially the most obvious distinction between the 2 corporations? Verizon did not spend $170 billion shopping for Time Warner and DirecTV prior to now 5 years.

That is the story of the transition from Time Warner to WarnerMedia, and the bumps which have occurred alongside the best way.

Netflix envy

Alhough Stankey was new to media, he suffered the identical illness as each different media government: Netflix envy.

He thought Plepler was aiming too low. Plepler’s plan to generate $7.5 billion in annual income was 12% greater than HBO’s eventual 2019 income. But it surely was a far cry from the $20 billion Netflix generated.

Stankey informed Plepler he wished a direct-to-consumer answer that would get to not less than 60 million subscribers in 5 years, in accordance with individuals accustomed to the matter. HBO subscriptions had fallen from about 37.5 million in 2017 to 34.5 million in 2019. Over the identical time, Netflix international subscriptions jumped 50%, from 111 million to 167 million.

If Stankey may persuade traders that HBO Max would mirror Netflix’s development trajectory, he would possibly be capable to seize a better buying and selling a number of for AT&T. That is the holy grail for media corporations this decade — convincing Wall Road that streaming development will make up for the decline of legacy companies like cable TV and movie show viewing. It is also a technique supported by AT&T’s most notable investor, activist hedge fund Elliott Administration, which final 12 months guess $3.2 billion that divesting non-core property and specializing in streaming may result in a surge in AT&T shares.

Stankey thought Plepler was connected to a fading distribution mannequin — a wholesale strategy the place corporations like Comcast and Amazon may promote HBO programming together with different linear networks or streaming companies. Stankey considered these corporations as rivals greater than companions. The battle can be preserving viewers within the AT&T ecosystem as an alternative of Apple’s or Amazon’s or Comcast’s.

This distinction in strategy confirmed up final month, when WarnerMedia struck a deal to place HBO Max on Amazon Fireplace TV. As a situation of that settlement, HBO is pulling its content material off Amazon’s Channels interface subsequent 12 months, individuals accustomed to the matter informed CNBC. A number of WarnerMedia executives who labored on the deal blamed Plepler for beforehand giving Amazon an excessive amount of management over HBO programming, making the brand new Fireplace TV settlement a lot more durable to finish.

Richard Plepler, CEO of HBO

Justin Solomon | CNBC

Stankey initially wished to maintain Plepler at HBO, however the relationship began to fray across the finish of 2018, stated individuals accustomed to the matter. Stankey arrange an L.A. assembly with Casey Bloys, then president of HBO programming, with out inviting or notifying Plepler. Plepler felt disrespected and informed Stankey as a lot. Stankey noticed Plepler as stoking an pointless turf struggle.

Across the identical time, Stankey held a gathering with senior executives on the Time Warner Middle boardroom in New York.

An outdoor advisor, Peter Cairo, who had spent the previous few months interviewing 65 WarnerMedia executives, offered a lot of issues with Time Warner’s siloed strategy. Lots of the senior leaders in attendance thought the presentation was doctored to help Stankey’s view that the corporate’s management was standing in the best way of progress. Cairo, who had a historical past of working with Time Warner’s management staff, informed the group HBO was notably immune to working with different elements of the corporate.

A number of veteran executives, together with Bernadette Aulestia, head of HBO’s international distribution and Donna Speciale, president of WarnerMedia’s advert gross sales, spoke as much as defend Time Warner’s historical past of success whereas questioning the best way AT&T was dealing with workers morale.

The assembly ended tersely with Stankey reducing off dialogue early, three of the individuals stated.

When the presentation ended, Plepler held a non-public assembly with Stankey. Quickly after, Plepler revealed to a small group of individuals he was leaving HBO. He made his departure public in Feb. 2019.

Each Plepler and Stankey declined to remark for this story. A WarnerMedia spokesperson added, “As CEO of WarnerMedia and now CEO of AT&T, John Stankey has made it a behavior to go to with gifted staff all through the corporate. That is what good leaders do and is a standard observe at well-run corporations.”

HBO Max: Bumpy begin

HBO Max launched in Could at a price of $14.99 a month — the identical as HBO — and an formidable tagline: “The place HBO meets a lot extra.” It combines 31 new originals with library programming, together with DC Comics content material, from cable networks like CNN, TNT, Grownup Swim, and the Warner Bros. studio. Stankey additionally licensed well-liked TV sequence together with “South Park,” “The West Wing” and “The Bachelor.”

AT&T’s grand plan is to pair HBO Max with its wi-fi service — AT&T clients with premium plans already get HBO Max at no cost right this moment. Wi-fi service has develop into a commodity in most markets, with AT&T, Verizon and T-Cellular all providing comparable speeds and pricing plans. HBO Max is supposed to assist AT&T stand out from the pack and scale back churn whereas giving the wi-fi firm viewership knowledge for advertising and focused promoting.

Since taking up, Kilar has accelerated Stankey’s burn-it-down technique to spice up HBO Max. As a part of the restructuring, WarnerMedia has performed a number of rounds of layoffs, together with greater than 1,000 staff in November. Kilar has even dismissed staff Stankey introduced in, together with Bob Greenblatt, who took over as chairman of WarnerMedia leisure in March 2019.

He ended Conan O’Brien’s late night time present on TBS and moved it over to HBO Max solely. He is making the blockbuster Warner Bros. movie “Surprise Lady 1984” accessible on HBO Max the identical day it hits theaters on Dec. 25. This week, he introduced each Warner Bros. film slated for launch in 2021, together with “Dune,” “Matrix 4,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Within the Heights,” and “The Sopranos” prequel “The Many Saints of Newark,” will launch on HBO Max on the identical time they’re launched in theaters.

In an interview, Kilar informed CNBC that killing the decades-old theatrical window, the place films acquired unique runs in theaters earlier than coming to dwelling video platforms, would make clients pleased, even when it harm the movie show business.

Gal Gadot stars as Surprise Lady in Warner Bros. “Surprise Lady 1984.”

Warner Bros.

“One of the best ways to seek out success in enterprise, and positively with the Web, is to start out with the client,” Kilar stated. “If we begin our days and finish our days targeted on the client, we’ll lead the business.”

Nearly the entire executives who spoke to CNBC — together with a number of nonetheless at WarnerMedia — felt the HBO Max experiment is not going notably effectively to this point. Solely 8.6 million individuals have signed as much as activate the service because it launched in Could. Evaluate this to Disney, which has signed up 73.7 million individuals for Disney+ in lower than a 12 months.

“Jason’s perception is — wrongly — if any piece of content material accessible wherever aside from HBO Max, it cheapens HBO Max,” stated one not too long ago departed government. “Jason is forgoing billions in income by turning his again on licensing to protect content material for HBO.”

By pricing HBO Max the identical as HBO, Stankey appeared to imagine HBO customers would merely swap to HBO Max over time. However the transition has been sluggish, as pay TV and streaming distributors — as soon as HBO’s wanted companions — have little incentive to market HBO Max to the tens of millions of people that already get HBO.

“The chance right here is that they find yourself pouring all of their Warner Bros. Studios content material into HBO Max just for it to proceed to be a premium service that serves solely the highest third of households,” stated MoffettNathanson analyst Craig Moffett. “There’s an actual danger that 1+1+1=1 right here, and that each one that shall be left of Warner Media when they’re completed is an HBO division that is kind of the identical measurement because it was after they began.”

Jason Kilar

Getty Photographs

One drawback is HBO Max has no tent-pole authentic sequence to jumpstart subscribers, like Disney+ has with “The Mandalorian.” That is partly as a result of, after the delay from the battle with the U.S. authorities, Stankey wished to get the service out quick, in accordance with individuals accustomed to the matter. The coronavirus pandemic lockdowns in 2020 additionally delayed the creation and filming of latest materials.

The rushed launch has additionally affected distribution. WarnerMedia held out on a streaming distribution cope with Amazon for months to get friendlier phrases and nonetheless hasn’t reached a cope with Roku. Kilar’s choice to launch the 2021 Warner Bros. slate of films on HBO Max concurrently with theater distribution may put extra strain on Roku to succeed in a deal. (Spokespeople at WarnerMedia and Roku declined to remark.)

Then there’s the complicated branding round HBO Max, which initially joined a plethora of equally named companies, together with HBO, HBO Go, and HBO Now. Though WarnerMedia lastly acquired round to retiring HBO Go and altering HBO Now to easily ‘HBO’ in June, a number of staff in control of advertising and branding acknowledged the adjustments ought to have come a lot sooner, earlier than HBO Max ever launched.

Kilar may additionally roll out separate streaming merchandise, comparable to a CNN-related product and a free leisure service that includes content material from TNT and TBS.

There’s even been discuss internally of adjusting the identify of HBO Max — both internationally solely or globally — as soon as it rolls out worldwide in 2021, in accordance with three individuals accustomed to the matter. Executives have batted round a number of names with “Warner” because the title model, moderately than “HBO” — which makes much more sense if the service builds model fairness round having movies the day they hit theaters. A WarnerMedia spokesperson stated {that a} identify change is not being actively thought of right now.

Passing on divestments

Elliott, which offered $150 million in AT&T shares at a loss final month, has pushed Stankey to divest property. Nonetheless, CNBC has discovered AT&T not too long ago handed on a pair offers that would have introduced in billions of {dollars} for the debt-laden firm.

Simply as Kilar was taking up WarnerMedia in Could, DraftKings floated the thought of buying Bleacher Report from AT&T. The Bleacher Report government staff was privately hoping Stankey and the board would approve a deal, as a result of it was clear AT&T’s focus can be on HBO Max, in accordance with individuals accustomed to the matter. However AT&T by no means critically thought of the sale, these individuals say. A DraftKings spokesman declined to remark. Since then, a lot of excessive rating Bleacher Report executives have left WarnerMedia, together with CEO Howard Mittman.

Kilar additionally determined to maintain Warner Brothers Interactive Leisure, the corporate’s video gaming unit, after AT&T fielded bidders earlier this 12 months.

“Any chart about gaming utilization is up and to the suitable,” stated Kilar. “It is one of the spectacular tendencies in U.S. client habits within the final 20 years. After we check out the subsequent 5, 10 or 15 years with WarnerMedia, I am very excited with the position gaming will play in our future.”

DirecTV dread

Many of the WarnerMedia executives CNBC spoke with for this story agreed that Stankey and Kilar’s bolder technique makes extra sense than Plepler’s extra conservative different.

However lots of the identical executives, who nonetheless personal numerous AT&T inventory, are scared that Time Warner’s path will mirror DirecTV’s.

CNBC; Getty Photographs

Within the years after buying DirecTV, Stankey eradicated a lot of the firm’s high leaders, modified the satellite tv for pc TV technique to digital-first, and ended advertising campaigns touting some great benefits of legacy know-how.

The outcomes haven’t been good.

AT&T ended the third quarter with about 17 million legacy TV subscribers (each DirecTV and U-Verse), down greater than 16% from a 12 months earlier. Whereas all pay-TV distributors have misplaced clients in recent times, AT&T has misplaced essentially the most — about Eight million video subscribers since early 2017. For comparability, Comcast has misplaced about Three million residential video clients over the identical interval, dropping from 22.5 million to 19.2 million.

The digital product has been a non-starter. Final quarter, the corporate reported an anemic 683,000 clients for AT&T Now — the brand new identify for DirecTV Now. That is a drop of 40% from final 12 months.

AT&T is at present in late-stage sale talks with non-public fairness corporations to promote a minority stake within the firm’s pay-TV distribution enterprise for a valuation that may very well be lower than $15 billion, individuals accustomed to the matter informed CNBC.

A few of this decline could also be a strategic selection. Stankey has purposefully steered AT&T’s enterprise away from DirecTV, realizing that promoting a bundle of linear channels — even digitally — is not the way forward for tv. It is attainable DirecTV will function template of what to not do, though Stankey has refused to name the DirecTV deal a mistake.

‘Tradition eats technique for breakfast’

Even when Stankey can study from the strategic errors AT&T with DirecTV, many former executives really feel the injury to HBO’s inside tradition is irreparable.

HBO has churned out critically acclaimed materials for practically 20 years. Sequence like “The Sopranos,” “Intercourse and the Metropolis,” and “Sport of Thrones” are credited with sparking a brand new golden age of tv and supplanting films as essentially the most prestigious type of video storytelling.

James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano

Supply: HBO | The Sopranos | Fb

This run of success has satisfied lots of the world’s hottest and glorified creators to work at HBO.

“Tradition eats technique for breakfast,” Plepler would regularly say to co-workers, quoting legendary administration advisor Peter Drucker, in accordance with individuals accustomed to the matter.

Some staff concern Stankey and Kilar do not recognize how lengthy it took to construct these relationships. A number of famous that Kilar and his deputy Andy Forssell have know-how backgrounds that do not all the time combine with the established inventive tradition.

Kilar stated any staff harboring that concern should not be fearful.

“I do not outline tradition,” Kilar stated. “You are speaking a few tradition that finally goes again 97 years.” (Warner Bros. was based in 1923.) “That is not going to alter as a result of just a few people are not current. Tradition is the choices we make when nobody else is trying. In the event you assume that is going away, you are not giving sufficient credit score to tradition.”

Kilar has retained some key HBO executives from the previous 20 years, together with Bloys, who’s now in control of HBO Max content material. Meredith Gertler, a 16-year HBO veteran, is government vp of content material technique. Amy Gravitt, who joined HBO in 2004, heads up comedy programming. Nina Rosenstein stays an government vp of programming after greater than 20 years with the corporate.

However former executives level to Stankey’s push so as to add promoting to HBO Max, slated for the second quarter of 2021, as doubtlessly ruinous, in accordance with individuals accustomed to the plans. Would manufacturers have been snug associating with “Sport of Thrones” beheadings or rape scenes in “The Sopranos”? HBO by no means wished to seek out out and danger having to compromise its content material to maintain advertisers pleased.

“If HBO stood for something, it was making a product for the client, not the advertiser,” stated one former HBO government. “It isn’t as if John is disagreeable. He would not throw stuff. He simply is aware of a lot much less about tv than he thinks and will not be debated.”

Each current and previous staff are optimistic that Bloys and his staff can hold churning out authentic programming hits for HBO Max. Bloys is shifting past the basic HBO tropes and attempting to show sequence that revolve round DC Comics characters or reboots like “Gossip Lady” into hits.

Nonetheless, a lot of these individuals predict AT&T will ultimately dump WarnerMedia, both in items or collectively, as a result of legacy media property will proceed to weigh on AT&T’s inventory moderately than assist it. A number of stated AT&T’s board will finally balk at giving Kilar the cash he must compete with Netflix, Amazon and Disney.

‘Why put the 2 corporations collectively?’

The day after AT&T introduced its deal for Time Warner in 2016, then-CEO Randall Stephenson appeared on CNBC to clarify the deal’s logic.

“Why put the 2 corporations collectively?” Stephenson stated. “The world of distribution and content material is converging, and we have to transfer quick, and if we wish to do one thing actually distinctive, start to curate content material in another way, start to format content material totally different for these cellular environments — that is all about mobility. Assume DirecTV Now, the brand new product we’re bringing to market. What are you able to do with Time Warner content material actually quick and really uniquely for our clients? Can you start to combine social into that content material? Are you able to give the potential to…I am watching content material, I wish to clip it, I wish to ship it through social media to my pals. Can we iterate on that rapidly, and may we give a singular expertise to our clients?”

No matter Stephenson was speaking about in that reply, it hasn’t occurred. There is a sense — even amongst high executives nonetheless on the firm — that AT&T’s WarnerMedia transformation is about making lemonade from property at risk of changing into lemons.

However nobody pressured AT&T to purchase Time Warner within the first place. The identical might be stated for DirecTV. Stephenson and Stankey made these choices.

It can take not less than a 12 months or two extra to guage HBO Max as successful or failure. In that point, WarnerMedia may develop a tradition and a product that breed loyal staff and make the gripes of the old-timers appear petty and irrelevant.

To borrow a line from “The Sopranos,” “‘Keep in mind when’ is the bottom type of dialog.”

Then once more, it is regarding to listen to the identical anxieties from so many WarnerMedia executives. To make use of a unique “Sopranos” line, “One factor you’ll be able to by no means say is that you have not been informed.”


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