Richard Plepler discusses his distinguished career in film and TV production, including his twenty-eight years at HBO, six of which he served as chairman and CEO, and his current role as founder and CEO of EDEN Productions, a film and TV production company that was announced in January 2020 with the signing of a multiyear exclusive content deal with Apple TV+.
Lessons Learned is a roundtable series, open to term members and younger life members, which features distinguished speakers who reflect on their career experiences, the choices they made along the way, and the lessons they have learned from them.
HAASS: Thank you. Good afternoon. Welcome to this Lessons Learned with Richard Plepler. I’m Richard Haass.
This is a series that we started, I don’t know, close to twenty years ago. And the whole idea is to get people to talk about their careers, their arc, and what lessons they and others could possibly derive or cull from their successes, their semi-successes. And we’ve got people in the room. We’ve got probably more people virtually. Today we’ve got Richard Plepler, who’s best known for his many years of leadership at HBO. He and I are going to have a conversation for a little bit, and then we’re going to open it up to you all both in this room and virtually.
Thank you. Welcome. So I should—two conflicts of interest, just to get out there. One is we’re good friends, at least we are now. Hopefully, we will continue to be. Richard’s also a member of the Board of Directors of the Council on Foreign Relations. Any other conflicts of interest we have to?
PLEPLER: No, that’s it.
PLEPLER: Those two.
HAASS: Just those two. So normally when kids grow up, Richard, they want to be third baseman for the Yankees, or they want to be a fireman. Did you grow up saying: I want to be president of HBO?
PLEPLER: I didn’t. And I always tell groups like this over the years what an accident of good fortune my whole journey was. It was all sparked by one simple core principle, which was I followed my gut. So every choice—fundamental choice that I’ve made throughout my career was a kind of nontraditional choice. I was supposed to go to law school; I went to Capitol Hill. I left Capitol Hill. I came to New York. I was supposed to go to law school; I went to work for a political communications firm. I was supposed to stay at the political communications firm and become a partner there, and I did what you can only do when you’re twenty-six, have no money, no position, and basically don’t know anything, I started my own company. And just for fun, I named it RLP International, because why not name it RLP International, even though there was one principal in the company, which was me. (Laughter.)
And I had an idea. It was the beginning of the Intifada, 1988—the First Intifada. And I decided—and I ran into Bibi Netanyahu, who was then the ambassador to the United Nations, true story, at a Chinese restaurant—do you know this story? Did I ever tell you this story?
PLEPLER: Chinese restaurant on Third Avenue called Fortune Garden. Since disbanded. And I marched over to him and I said: Mr. Ambassador, my name is Richard Plepler. I’m the president of RLP International. Had my card. I gave him a card. And I said, you guys are getting killed in the American press and in the American media. And you need a documentary which brings context to the conflict with the Palestinians. And he said, by some miracle, come see me. And I went to see him. And I had never made a documentary in my life. I had no idea how to make a documentary. But I did have an idea that the story that was being told on American television screens was reductive, David, Goliath, over-simplistic, and that there was a much more nuanced story to tell.
And from there, I made it up as I went along. But that film, which aired on public television and thank God turned out well, which I made with a gentleman named Peter Kunhardt, who now all these many years later is the production company under my little production company through which I’m making documentaries for Apple. Peter knew how to make documentaries, but he didn’t know the story as well about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And that sparked the interest of the guy then running HBO, who said to me: You’ve got to come to HBO. HBO was not HBO in 1989. It was way before Sopranos, or Sex in the City, or any of the iconic shows that came to characterize HBO. So I went there as a young executive who didn’t know very much. But it was that film, which came from my simple passion for storytelling and political international storytelling particularly because of my own interests, that brought me there. And it was all serendipitous. And my whole journey at HBO was serendipitous.
So I not only didn’t plan to be the CEO of HBO, even if when I showed up at HBO, in May of 1992, you had brought together the hundred senior people at HBO and you said: Which one of these people is likely to be the CEO? I would have been 100th on that list. So everything for me has been good fortune and a happy accident. All spurred by me trusting my gut at the crucial inflection points of my career. I cannot emphasize that enough. What I tell everybody, do not go to the position or the title. Go to the passion. And if you go to the passion, you will find your way.
HAASS: So in a place like HBO, it’s a business but it’s in the business of creating, the business of educating, entertaining, all these things. Talk a little bit about, though, the special challenges or things you learned from running a business. You’re not turning out widgets. You’re dealing with a lot of creative, but also—how would I put it—singular individuals.
HAASS: What is it about overseeing and getting the most out of a collection of artists, or people who like to think of themselves as artists, how does that—how does managing that or leading that qualitatively differ from General Motors?
PLEPLER: So I’d say two things. First of all, coming up in the company when I did, in the ’90s and early 2000, and then getting real leadership, particularly creative leadership, position, in the early aughts, at that moment in time, pre-Netflix, pre-Amazon, pre-Hulu, pre-Disney, pre-streaming, you could define success in a different way. And so the way we defined success at HBO for many years, certainly for the vast preponderance of the years that I was there, was create distinctive and original content that stood out and that separated you from, first, network television, and then cable television, basic cable television, and then very, very early years of the streaming services.
So for us, it was leaning into a small group of storytellers who had three opportunities at HBO that they would never have had anywhere else, right? We gave them a lot of freedom. We were iconoclastic in the sense that we trusted the artist first because we were not selling advertising. So, interesting story, when David Chase comes in and says, I want to tell the story of a mob boss in New Jersey who is having a midlife crisis, there’s tension with his teenage kids, little bit of tension in his marriage, and he’s seeing a shrink. And I’m going to set it in New Jersey not New York. We said, in those years, go do your thing, because we see in David Chase that he's telling, in a sense, what he’s breathing. He’s telling what he knows. He had an Uncle Junior. He knew a lot of those people who characterized the iconic roles at HBO.
He had been turned down at all the networks. Every single network turned down that show. So we had this great advantage in those early years where we could lean into artists, let them paint. That became catalytic. More and more artists began to come in, particularly writers and directors. And everybody started to see HBO in those years, in the early aughts, as a haven, an island, for creativity. That then, no surprise, created a great business which was, guess what, people want to watch high-quality programming. They don’t want to watch network fare. They want to watch it with no advertising. And writers talk to writers, producers talk to producers, directors talk to producers.
And so we realized very quickly, we’re in the talent business. And the talent became the reason we could charge all the money we charged to get a subscription to HBO. That then began to grow. Technology came as a tailwind for us. So first we had the cable business, then we had the satellite business, then we had the telco business. And then finally in my last years at the company we had the burgeoning streaming business—internet distribution. All that technology did a very simple thing for a creative company that had a good product, opened up the optionality for an audience to see it.
But the core value—the core value was becoming a place where talent wanted to be. And that was our great advantage. I still think it’s—a lot of HBO DNA today is, ironically, at a moment where there’s $475 billion being spent in six places on content—just think about that for a minute, $457 billion being spent in six places—the key to success is where do the best people want to be? So we knew that if we didn’t have that extra gene to deal with talent we couldn’t grow the business, we couldn’t convince people to pay more for the product. And as new technologies began to evolve, we would have been left on the side of the road. But instead, the opposite happened.
So we were always thinking: Creative voices, become the place where people want to do their best work. And that would eventually put so much tailwind behind the brand that we were distinctive in a very competitive market. And that’s exactly what happened. The business—the success of the business followed the success of our creative vision.
HAASS: We’re also, in a different way, in the talent business here. What we do is we produce and disseminate ideas. But talent can’t just be left to itself. You also—besides selecting it, you also have to intervene. Talent does not necessarily get a hit every time it goes to the plate. So what did you learn about how to—how to manage talent? One thing is to say to David Chase, go write—go do your show. But I expect even David Chase produced a few lousy shows somewhere along the way. How is it you know when to rein in talent or when to say no to talent?
PLEPLER: So we—I used to say, in my years of running the company, that I always felt culture eats strategy for breakfast. And I believe that. And what I meant by that was that if you created an environment where your team felt comfortable dissenting, and your team felt comfortable pushing back on leadership, you are going to create an environment where generationally and ideologically you are going to get all kinds of different perspectives. So over time we, I think, created a very unique creative culture. And I could regale you with story after story where things came in, whether my tenure as CEO or my tenure as co-president, where I said to my team: This is out of my strike zone. It’s just out of my strike zone. I’m too old. I don’t see this. What do you think?
And because the culture was so open to input from different perspectives, we got a lot of things done over a long time that, had we run it tightly, would have never happened. And what then began to happen is talent began to trust that we loved being in business with that. So that if we gave a note to somebody, it wasn’t because we were trying to get a bigger audience. It wasn’t because we were trying to sell more advertising. It was because we thought it would make the work better. But we always, or most usually, deferred to them. And over time, if we, the executives, have the best ideas in the room, we have a serious problem, right? So you want to create an environment where they have the best ideas in the room and you, though experience, through judgement, or simply objective perspective when you’re looking at the content or reading a script, can say: That’s not clear to me, or maybe we ought to turn that way and not that way. And amazing things began to happen.
I happen to think the amazing things happen because we have an open culture, a transparent culture, and a culture which brooked dissent. And I think where companies in my business get into huge trouble is when those cultures get ossified, when people are not free to think, when it’s tightly controlled from the top, and you lose the energy of this generation of voices, and you lose the energy of the experience and collective wisdom inside the company. And we were very, very good at collective wisdom. And we only got into trouble in my years—in my experience we only got into trouble when we forgot the collective wisdom point. So I used to say: I don’t care if I’m right at the beginning of the meeting, as long as HBO’s right at the end of the meeting. And in order for HBO to be right at the end of the meeting, I had to be prepared, whatever leadership position I was in, to turn to a colleague and say, that’s better. And that’s why talent kept coming, because they knew if we had a critique, it was in the service of the work, not because we were trying to micromanage their expression of themselves.
HAASS: So while you were there—and just to be clear, I am not attributing this to you—you had a front-row seat to what were two—if I were going to make a list of the least-successful mergers in American business history, you had a front-row seat to two of them.
HAASS: AOL Time Warner, and then your—the most recent experience with AT&T. Though it’s probably a little bit soon to say it’s—but I’m just guessing it may not turn out to be a homerun—continuing our baseball metaphor.
PLEPLER: Well, they just on Friday sold the company to Discovery.
HAASS: Exactly, Discovery. So what can you say about that? Because so much of business is about either developing from within or acquiring, merging. You know, investment banks depend upon it. But yet, you saw two cases where it just didn’t take, it just didn’t work. How come?
PLEPLER: Yeah. Cultures. Cultures. Just diametrically opposed DNA sets. You know, my guess is across the room—and virtually there are people from all different disciplines. And you are sitting at banks, and academic institutions, or law firms—wherever you are, there is a culture. And my observation after thirty years of being in Time Warner was if the culture—if the leadership is not open to a genuine exploration of ideas, you’re going to get into trouble. And I think, not to speak in derogation of either of the leaderships of AOL or AT&T, I do think that there was an idee fixe at the top of both of those places that thought they had the answer and wasn’t interested in listening.
So one of my favorite metaphors for this particular chapter of leadership 101 comes from Professor Haass, which is a celebrated story. I think I can tell—yes, it’s in—it’s public.
HAASS: If it’s in one of my books it’ll be new to everyone. (Laughter.)
PLEPLER: It’s in one of my books, exactly. Is it’s very—it’s actually—it’s actually, in its own way, one of the most important metaphors about leadership that I’ve ever heard. And I use it all the time. Which is, Richard, as deputy secretary, turning to the then-national security advisor and saying: Do you think we should have a deputies meeting before we head into war in Iraq—it’s the summer of ’02. To which this particular national security advisor said: Don’t waste your breath. And that story, that story, is the metaphor for a problem, because what I would always say—certainly when I—you know, JFK began all his Cabinet meetings, certainly after Bay of Pigs—this is in a Richard Reeves book which is also a brilliant book on leadership in many respects. And JFK began his meetings saying: What do we got? What do we got? Meaning, talk to me, right?
And so I worked for people before I became CEO who would begin the day saying, check me on this. Those were good leaders. And I began the day with people saying to me, do you want to know what I think? And I’d say, anyone in a position of authority who begins a meeting saying, you want to know what I think, is never going to get an honest answer from anybody with a mortgage sitting in the room. So the key is to begin it like JFK began it. What do we got? And my favorite line always—still today, even in my little PT boat, you know, producing some stuff for Apple, I say it all the time in every single production meeting I’m in. Check me. Check me, check me, check me. Or, what am I missing? Because then you invite a conversation.
And I think idee fixes are very dangerous in statecraft, right? We’ve seen them many, many times. You know, Putin had an idee fixe, right? I mean, you know no one—speaking of cultures—you know, no one inside that room could speak truth to power.
HAASS: Actually, I disagree with that. You can speak to truth to power in Putin’s Russia, once. (Laughter.)
PLEPLER: (Laughs.) Once, exactly. Which, of course, means if you’d like to be with Navalny, you can speak truth to power. But watch the Frontline on Putin and watch the camera to go back to look at the national security establishment. Watch their faces when Putin essentially says to them, so, are we going for this? Now, this appears like a discursive answer on Richard’s question about what was wrong with those two mergers, but it isn’t. It goes to the fundamental problem of what happens when people do not want to ask questions. And that’s what I think happened in the—in the privacy of the Petersen (sp) Center. I think that’s what happened—and, by the way, you can ask all the questions you want and still screw up. But at least if you’re listening you have a better chance of not—we’re all going to make mistakes.
So the question is, how much input do you have? And, look, I never had a lot of conversations—no disrespect—but I never had a lot of conversations with folks at AT&T when they’d come in, because they weren’t interested in having a lot of conversations. And, you know. Everybody’s entitled when they buy a company to do what they want.
HAASS: I could follow up but I’m going to keep moving because I want to cover different things. When you were at HBO—and you talked about when you began—documentaries were an important part of what made your heart beat. When you look, though, at the—which, by the way, in your case that you’re really interested in this stuff and you wanted—yes, there was time in life to do the Sopranos, but there’s also time in life to do serious documentaries. There’s a time for every purpose under heaven. But when you look at the media thing—I’m a few years older than you—but when I grew up the morning shows actually had some seriousness. The nightly news actually was the news.
HAASS: And so forth. So now you have someone like Chris Licht taking over CNN, or whatever. Can you now do serious stuff? Or are the financial and audience pressures such that what you want to do, you can only do either in HBO twenty years ago, or maybe now you have to start your own production company and have an arrangement with Apple. You basically can’t do serious stuff anymore? The economics don’t allow it?
PLEPLER: No, you can. I think the key is there is such a surfeit of content out there that no one can—you can’t keep track of anything. So I said to Richard the other day at a lunch, did you see the Frontline on Putin? And he hadn’t seen it. Neither had a couple of the other people on the phone. The reason they hadn’t seen it is because they hadn’t advertised it. Nobody knew it was there. And when I was coming up, a Frontline for, I’ll date myself, but there were things on network television called CBS reports, NBC reports, looking at the Vietnam War, looking at Watergate, looking at serious subjects over two hours. They commanded audiences of twenty million, thirty million. And then they were repeated, and they won awards.
There is such—look at your own lives, right? How many times do you sit at a dinner, or a lunch, or with friends, and say did you see—you haven’t seen this? Did you see Dropout? Oh, what’s Dropout? Is that the Uber thing? Or is that WeCrashed on Apple? Oh, no, that’s the Elizabeth Holmes thing. Where is that? Oh, that’s on—that’s on—oh, that’s on Hulu, right. No, I haven’t gotten to that. I saw the Uber thing. I said, you can’t keep track. And all of these entities have to spend enormous amounts of money and focus reaching an increasingly disparate audience, who are overwhelmed.
So you can’t do serious things. But the companies can’t—there are so many children in each of these companies, you can’t go to each kid’s soccer game, right? There’s just not enough time. So in the old days, if we—even when I was there, just to go back—you know, we did documentaries on Scientology, which was the highest rated documentary in HBO history. Second highest documentary—I hate to tell him this—but the second-highest documentary up until certainly, I think still, summer of ’19, when I left, was A World in Disarray, based on—
HAASS: Excuse me, could you say that a little bit louder? (Laughs.)
PLEPLER: A World in Disarray. And everybody made fun—you know, we did the World in Disarray at HBO, because I was the CEO and they went all right, all right, all right. We got to do it. Richard wants to do it. And we used young journalists in the field to go out and explore different parts of the world that were in conflict. We have the wise men and women from Condi to Tony Blinken to Richard Haass, and others, and Tony Blair, as the kind of chorus of wisdom. And it was very engaging. And it did a number. And we didn’t even spend that much money marketing.
So there is an audience for high-quality. I just finished a thing for Apple on Lincoln called Lincoln’s Dilemma, which was loosely based on David Reynolds’ award-winning book called Abe. I promise you that—and it did very, very well and it’s still doing well. Jon Stewart in a show I executive produce on Apple, takes on a serious issue—he’s done eight of them. He’s going to do twelve more. He had a podcast to follow it. He looked at burn pits, for an example, in his first show, and the lack of veterans’ health insurance covering these veterans who had been victims of the pollution and toxicants coming from these burn pits in war. And guess what? He got legislation changed because Biden saw it, and put it in the State of the Union, and Schumer brought it to the floor, and it had bipartisan support. All because Jon—I didn’t know anything about burn pits—all because Jon said, I’m going to take this on.
So there’s an—there is a place for it. And I think it’s even more important now because there’s so much disinformation and misinformation being spewed out in so many different places. That if you can create an engaging story that explicates and elevates rather than distorts, that’s a big opportunity. That’s my favorite thing right now in this chapter is can I do a few things like that, that are smart, that help elevate the conversation. And, you know, I think a lot of the different, not just Apple but my old house and even Netflix, has—the problem with some of these places is there’s too much. So it gets cluttered. But it can be done.
HAASS: And could you do it? I mean, we live in an age as much of narrowcasting rather than broadcasting. And a lot of the outlets have become very specific. The content or, as we also see, specific as to ideology. Can you just be—can you do smart, and mainstream it? If one of the cable networks, CNN or someone else, said: We’re just going to do really smart stuff down the center—we’re not going to go Fox, we’re not going to go MSNBC—is there a place for that anymore?
PLEPLER: Yeah. And I think it’s essential. So if you look—you know, Jon—when Jon Stewart brought the idea to me, he had a very simple sentence. Noise is the enemy, clarity the goal. And he’s taken on a range of issues—from Wall Street, to disinformation in the media, to veterans health insurance, to climate. And I think if you just look at Jon’s shows, just go on Apple TV+ and watch Jon’s shows, you’ll see, to your question, it can be done. There’s nothing ideological about burn pits. It’s just a terrible tragedy of war that was being ignored by the Veterans Administration and by all of the health plans in the Veterans Administration. And Jon pushed the question by elevating the conversation. And he got legislation changed.
So is that—is that liberal? Is that conservative? I don’t think it’s either. I think it’s the role of citizenry. So there are ways to do it. And I reject the notion that—I mean, look, cable news is a different animal than storytelling. And I think if you get the storytelling right and you do it in—look at World in Disarray. I mean, that—a lot of the best documentaries—let’s just go to my old house for a minute. We did—they were all micro that had much larger themes to them. So Warren Buffett was ostensibly about the legendary investor Warren Buffett. It was very much about capitalism and enterprise and the grit of this kid from the Midwest who had a passion and a talent. But had a lot to say about free enterprise and capitalism.
The Newsman (sic; The Newspaperman), which was ostensibly a kind of biography on Ben Bradlee, was really about a simple question and an answer: Does it matter who sits in those chairs? Yes. And Ben Bradlee mattered. And so The Newsman (sic; The Newspaperman) was about how consequential it is that we have people of that character sitting in those jobs, right? Scientology, the Durst thing, the show on—that we did with Richard. All the—by the way, we did a thing—one of the last things I did there. You want to talk about a nerd thing that did well? We looked at the financial crisis with Tim Geithner, Hank Paulson and Ben Bernanke. You want—just imagine pitching this—(laughter)—this idea. My friend and colleague Josh Tyrangiel, who thankfully still works with me, he made sense of it. And it did really well. And it was a lessons learned ten years later about how we tripped up and had the chaos we had. So in late ’18 we did this thing and it popped.
HAASS: But the subtext is that you don’t have to have charisma to succeed. (Laughter.)
HAASS: Tons we can cover but there’s a lot of experience and talent in this room, and virtually, so I may do a follow-up question here or there but I’d love to get some questions. You know, just raise your hand. Let us know who you are and what you do. Keep it short, and we’ll get Professor Plepler to expand.
Sir? Wait for a microphone we’ve got around the room, and someone will let me know if there’s a virtual question.
Q: Andrew Klaber from Bedford Ridge Capital.
Richard, thank you so much for being with us. My question really goes to business models and where the puck is going. You mentioned 475 billion (dollars) being spent on content. So many of these outlets did not exist independently twenty years ago—Netflix, Apple, Warner, Amazon, Paramount. They’re all doing their own thing.
But the brilliance of the model that you grew up in, one of the brilliances, was it was really painful to have that cable guy come and rip out your cable. But now with a click on your smart phone you can turn these things on and off. Given the sheer amount of money that’s going into content, how do you think this all plays out in the next five, ten, twenty years?
PLEPLER: Good question. I think you’re going to see more and more consolidation. There will probably be four winners, and those winners—the great brilliant talent in the distribution business in the early years and still a Liberty chairman and on the board of Discovery, John Malone, says the free radicals will be swallowed up.
So those smaller entities—I won’t name them—but those smaller entities are unlikely to be able to survive on their own. They’ll get consolidated over the coming months and couple of years, and then the race is for the bandwidth in people’s lives and that is really hard.
So, again, I commend you to your own lot, right. Just go onto Netflix, go onto Apple, go onto Disney, go onto HBO, and you just go, like, oh my God. So what is going to break through? Fewer things, and we live in a world now where—and I’m mindful of this all the time—the most important driver, in a way, of success is that little icon on the bottom right of your screen that says next episode, and in the world that I came up with, it started to end at the end of my time at HBO. It’s certainly not—it’s certainly over now. You don’t have two weeks or two hours to bring your audience into your project. You’ve got about probably forty-five minutes, and I’m not going to name the shows that I have turned on in the last month and after thirty-five minutes I’m out, right, and that’s a brutal Darwinian dynamic about the business.
So you need—the content needs to be elevated to a degree in whatever genre you’re in where the audience says, I’m in, and there will be—the degree of difficulty of running these things now versus even three years ago when I—is 50X. Because take a show like Succession, which is a brilliant show. But Succession built over its first year. It grew over its first year. Critical acclaim built. Word of mouth spread. Social media enhanced the show. And so by the end of season one, Succession was a hit even in COVID land. Won an Emmy, I believe won a Golden Globe, and the next thing you know Succession is on the cultural landscape.
But it took a little bit of time to build. I’m not sure where we would be in this moment. Nobody has any time to build. People are in and out very quickly. So it is a merciless environment and it’s paradoxical because, on one hand, it’s the best time in the world to be a creator of content because there’s so much content and so much money.
On the other hand, as a very smart colleague of mine says, be prepared to make things in this day and age and have them not seen. And so that’s the brutal reality. So each of these places—Disney has its definition of a North Star, HBO Max with its definition of a North Star, Apple has its definition of a North Star—all have different business models. All are very, very different enterprises.
If you’re at Apple, I’m not telling you that they don’t want to get to two hundred, three hundred million subscribers, but they’re worth $3 trillion because of this and because of this and because of the App Store.
So they have a little bit more flexibility. They’ve got a lot of opportunity to spend money in a lot of different places, whereas Netflix has to keep growing its sub base. HBO Max has to keep growing its sub base. So slightly different than Amazon and Apple. It’s not a simple answer because it’s a very complicated question. But it is brutal.
HAASS: To what extent—by the way, there’s all the talk and reality of deglobalization—affect all this, that what might be acceptable now here or desirable here may not play in Russia or China or Pakistan? Just, I think, increasingly, we’ve got a much more divided market.
PLEPLER: Well, this is interesting apropos of the Council. Indigenous programming in whatever market you were in, whether it was South America or Asia or Europe, always outperform American hits. So even Game of Thrones which, arguably, was the most successful television show up to date of all time, even Game of Thrones didn’t do as well in South America as the best telenovela in that region, right.
And so everybody forgets—and this was a—kudos to Netflix for seeing this, right, very early on—but indigenous programming, huge, huge value in whatever region you happened to be programming in. If you look, for example, on the Sky TV ratings—Sky TV was our partner when I was at HBO in England so HBO distributed on Sky—all the top ten shows were British shows. And then you had Veep and Silicon Valley and Big Little Lies and The Night Of and Game of Thrones. But all this—in Italy, same thing. In Canada, same thing.
So very important to never get so arrogant to think that it’s an American-driven space in television because it’s not. It’s a global space.
HAASS: OK. Andrew?
Q: Andrew Gundlach, CEO of Bleichroeder.
I share your view on consolidation and content. Does that necessarily mean that single-channel distribution, i.e., Netflix, will go away and multi-channel distribution, i.e., Disney, which is the traditional model of content distribution, will win, which is another way of asking when does Netflix take advertising?
PLEPLER: Well, another good question. Look, the smart money is on everybody having two tiers, right—a subscription tier without advertising and a subscription tier with advertising.
Now, I was watching a Hulu show the other night and for some weird reason, because I’m so technologically moronic, I had pushed the wrong button and had the advertising Hulu, and it was so annoying to me that I literally had to call my 18-year-old and say, tell me how to get this off because I can’t watch The Dropout with ads, right.
But let’s just look at macroeconomics, going forward, and remember the reason the cable bundle fell apart. The reason the cable bundle began to fall apart is people began to say, I’m spending a hundred and twenty dollars and I watch three things. This is aggravating.
By the way, I don’t watch ESPN. Why does this—why is there ($)7.80 in my bill for ESPN? I don’t watch ESPN. I don’t watch half these things. So you know what? I’m going to cut the cord because all I need is Netflix.
But then guess what happened? They said, you know, I’d like Netflix and Disney. You know, I’d like Netflix and Disney and HBO—oh, you know what? Some really good stuff on Apple. So I’m going to take Netflix, Disney, HBO Max, and Apple, plus my broadband. Oh, I’d also like—I need to have ESPN and I got to have—and all of a sudden, guess what that bill is? A hundred and twenty-five dollars.
And so what’s going to start to happen is in order for these companies to continue to invest in content, they’re going to need—as the sub numbers go down, they’re going to need to supplement it with advertising, which is why you’re going to have, eventually—which is why the Netflix COO—CFO said on the phone the other day in an earnings call, never say never—if that isn’t a tell I don’t know what it is. They’re going there, right. And, you know, if you can afford it you’ll take the non-advertising option. If you have a slightly tighter budget but you want the programming, you’ll compromise.
So I think it’ll be dual stream, and the real challenge—and this is a much, much more complicated conundrum, which I would not want to have to solve if I were sitting there—how do you spend the necessary amount of money that you need to spend to make high-quality programming, market it so that people know it’s on, and continue to grow subscribers globally in a world where, quite frankly, there is so much that you can sometimes not even—I would challenge—I could throw out five shows to this audience and you would—I promise you, you would not get that high grade naming where those shows are.
Now, that’s the big challenge. It’s why Netflix, by the way, went from a $600 billion valuation to a $300 billion valuation very quickly. It wasn’t that they made any mistakes. It was just—it just meant that the market began to evaluate EBITDA versus sub growth in the same way they were evaluating EBITDA versus sub growth in my day at HBO. You had to make money, not just grow subs. Everybody’s now waking up to: Oh, guess what? We need to make money and grow subs. That’s the big challenge.
So there will be dual. It’ll be tougher and tougher, harder and harder to break through. But for the consumer—let’s not bury the lede—for the consumer it’s heaven because there’s so much optionality.
HAASS: Meaghan. Pardon me?
OPERATOR: Our first virtual question will be from Adam Philipp.
HAASS: The voice of God. Adam?
Q: Hi, Richard. My name is Adam Philipp from Cedarbrook Partners and I’m a term member. Thanks very much for being with us. I’m really enjoying the chance to hear from you.
I’m just curious how you feel your career has benefited from being involved with CFR and other foreign policy groups, and what being part of CFR over the years has meant to you personally, even though you’re not, you know, working directly in the foreign policy and international affairs community. Thanks.
HAASS: This meeting is on the record. (Laughter.)
PLEPLER: So this is the absolute truth. When I was invited to be a member of the Council, my father was actually prouder of that than when I became CEO of HBO. My dad thought that being invited to be a member of the Council among such accomplished people, such serious people, was much, much more a statement that I was evolving in a way that he hoped I would evolve and be proud of than when I became CEO of HBO.
And in—I happened—it’s a close call, but I’m glad I have both of them. But as somebody who sits on the Council board with enormous humility because I am not a policy expert and I didn’t serve in government like Richard and so many others did, I just find it breathtaking. That’s the word, humbling and breathtaking.
And in the days before we did these on Zoom I would get in the car and I would go back to HBO and I would make a call and the first thing I would say to whoever I was calling in my business was, if ever you want to feel like you don’t know anything—and I’m a junkie and read almost everything there is for a normal citizen to read outside the policy world—if ever you want to feel like you don’t know anything, just come sit in a Council on Foreign Relations board meeting.
But it’s been an enormous blessing for me because, first of all, I’ve met a range of people that I wouldn’t have otherwise been exposed to, some of whom, Mr. Haass, who was actually a friend but who I got much closer to in his time as president and my time on the Council and then my time on the board—many, many of these folks I’ve called upon over the years to inform how I thought and it’s, certainly, played a role in my ability to navigate a global business because I got insights, whether it was from reading, you know, Foreign Affairs or from sitting in a meeting or from coming to things like this over the years.
I’ve learned an enormous amount in this building. I continue to learn an enormous amount. And, I mean, I’ll say kind of off the record that that we—I’ve just brought—there’s a French TV show, brilliant TV show, called The Bureau, which takes place in the world of French intelligence, and I’m bringing the sequel to Apple to adapt in English.
And the reason I’m so excited about it is I think it’s a way to look at a post-American world, back to Richard’s earlier question, in a very engaging, nondidactic way, but to illuminate to a global audience different ways that different countries see the world.
And if we do it right—and it was done beautifully in the original French version—if we do it right in English, because the French version had, obviously, limited exposure, I think we can do something—be precious about it, but to elevate the conversation.
So my Council participation has been a total blessing for me in my life, and humility would be the word I would use to describe most of what I feel when I’ve sat in many—just the place is a breathtaking array of intellectual property, simple as that, present company included.
HAASS: Thank you, sir.
Q: Thank you. I’m Maryum Saifee. I’m a State Department Foreign Service officer.
My question is focused on a comment that you made about this need for a culture of dissent in order to produce better content and embrace diversity.
I currently work in an office in the department that just started less than a year ago, focusing on building this culture of dissent and inclusion. What are some of the structural interventions you did, either during your tenure or you wish you had done even?
We’re struggling right now at the department on how do you—
PLEPLER: Yeah. Well—
Q: —how do you actually make sure that it’s not only recruiting, retaining at the senior ranks, producing the content, but also the people behind the scenes? So thank you.
PLEPLER: Yeah. That—oh, great question and, look, I was very, very passionate about that. I’m convinced that my good fortune and my tenure and the good fortune of the company came because we had a culture of transparency.
Now, we weren’t perfect and there were tensions and there were competitive sidebars. There were all kinds of human dynamics. The key to effectuating it is you have to mean it, and if you mean it your team knows you mean it, and if your team knows you mean it that filters down inside the company, and you have to practice the process of being prepared to be wrong with your team because what then happen—if not wrong, have your idea amended.
Because the second you sit in a meeting and say, you know, that’s better, let’s do that, that travels throughout a company so fast you have no idea. And all of a sudden a conversation develops that the CEO wants to hear that, and whether it’s about diversity of ideas or people or whether it’s about business decisions, I am convinced that—you know, Buffett has this thesis in investing. Jim Burke, who was a mentor of mine when I was starting out who ran Johnson & Johnson, a legendary CEO, he had a core—set of core principles and one of those core principles was full transparency.
Now, that’s different from the so-called radical transparency—no disrespect—of Bridgewater (sp) where people are just shooting at people and—there’s a way to do that, I think, that’s, I think, makes people a little bit more willing to take risks and be honest than the brutality of, quote, “radical transparency,” which is a whole another conversation.
But being able to entertain dissent and push—it has to come from the top, has to be authentic, and your team has to be with you, and part of the advantage of growing up in the company that I grew up in is people knew me.
So I was able, over years, to build trust. And Tom Friedman has a great line that says trust is the only legal performance-enhancing drug, right, and trust, it’s the key in policy. It’s the key in statecraft. It’s the key in government. It’s the key in business. Do you have trust among your team?
So my admonition to you is just make sure that whoever is putatively leading that means it, because if they don’t, the worst thing is what I call the fake honest conversation, which is pretending to engage in that and everybody knows it’s artificial and it’s just in the service of, you know, checking the box. That’s a disaster.
HAASS: Yes, ma’am?
Q: Thank you. Hi. Seema Mody from CNBC.
Given the prevalence of streaming platforms coinciding with social media and the outlook of these companies—I don’t know if you heard Twitter has been in the news recently for some reasons—curious how you see those platforms playing a more pivotal role as these streaming players try to generate more content.
PLEPLER: Yeah. Another good question. Look, there’s a bit of dichotomy, right. On one side, social media is a gift to content providers. So if you get the momentum of people on their Instagram accounts or TikTok accounts or whatever it is talking about a show, whether it’s Bridgerton or whether it’s Tehran or whether it’s Succession, the kind of viral marketing that that produces you can’t pay for.
The dichotomy is that on the other side, of course, disinformation can go out and you can create all kinds of problems for different content that may be much more complex than it’s being portrayed as in social media.
So that tension between the role of social media and the role of the streaming services will be there for a while, and there are people inside all of these companies, and in my time it was just beginning. You know, I was just such a green old—you know, old school. I mean, I grew up when a piece in the New York Times meant the show had arrived or a profile in the New Yorker meant that director had arrived.
And I had to get schooled very quickly, 2012, ’13, ’14, ’15, ’16, ’17 in the power of new social media. Now, it’s exponentially more complicated than it was even three years ago. So there will be a tension between those things and I think the key is make good—do good quality work on the service—Netflix, Disney, whatever it is—and most of the time you’re going to get topspin from quality.
It’s not that you’re not going to get controversy. You are. But I think it can be managed if the work transcends. Does that answer your question?
HAASS: We’ll get you a microphone as fast as we can, my friend.
Q: No worries. Thanks, Richard. So maybe this question was already asked. I’m Adem Bunkeddeko, Coro New York.
I have a question about content. So what kind of content do you see sort of catching on or sort of being at the frontier of back to this competition that you outlined? So twenty or twenty-five years ago it was reality TV, so Keeping Up With The Kardashians, this, that, and a fourth that kind of broke through and caught people’s attention.
What do you see or don’t see right now that you think, in the years to come, is really going to capture folks’ imagination or audiences?
PLEPLER: Yeah. Yeah. So I’m going to tell you two stories. So my first bet 2006, 2007—my first big bet, and your first bet is the biggest bet because when you get those keys there are a lot of knives out, like, a lot of people want those seats and everybody has something to say about who should be in those seats.
So your first bet is key, and my first bet, our first bet, 2006, was a show called True Blood, which was a vampire fantasy show, and it worked. And when I sat before the Television Critics Association, which was the kind of press platform that you would sit before to advertise the plans of your network and highlight your best shows, a question came from the back of the audience.
Mr. Plepler, how did you see the vampire phenomenon coming in America so clearly with Twilight and whatever the other vampire shows—what’s the other one? There were, like, two movies and Twilight was—anyway, I said, I didn’t.
I just saw Alan Ball, right, who created True Blood and Alan had done Six Feet Under for HBO years before and he had done a show on Cinemax which was very clever, more pop than anything. It was called Banshee.
But Alan’s a genius, and so when Alan explained his vision for the show, I bet on Al. But the canard is that anybody knew that the vampire phenomenon was coming. Nobody knew. We just knew this is a really talented guy—to Richard’s question earlier—who had a real vision for how to move the genre forward, and he delivered. And the cast was great and it took off.
The famous Bill Goldman line, who wrote Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President’s Men, and Goldman once said, let me tell you about our business. Nobody knows anything. And that’s actually quite true. All you know is that writer, that writer, that director. Let’s bring them into the fore and hear what they have to say.
So Bridgerton—well, let me do Thrones because it’s actually textbook for your question. When David Benioff came to see me and I was co-president, I had read one of the books. It’s not my thing—fantasy. I didn’t—dragons and magic—and I read the script, which I keep in my office in my home in Connecticut, the original Thrones manuscript.
And Benioff walked in, who’s a brilliant guy, and he said, listen, I know you’re uncomfortable or you’re concerned about this. But I know you’re a political junkie and I know you’re an amateur student of history. Can I just tell you something? This is a story of power. It’s archetypal. It’s Shakespearean.
Doesn’t matter where you are. It could be in fifth century England. You could be in tenth—forget that. You’re going to forget where you are in the first ten minutes of my thing and it is a story as old as the Bible, and its essence is power and the Faustian nature of power and how people attempt to acquire it, and literally—this is honest to God true story—I looked at David Benioff and said, let’s go.
Now, if you think I knew that Thrones was going to become Game of Thrones I would be lying to you. Nobody knows that. You just know that those guys—David Benioff, Dan Weiss—are geniuses. George R.R. Martin, who created the world, genius. We knew George was staying close to David and Dan. The great Tim Van Patten came in to help make the pilot and the rest is history.
I cannot tell you how many of those—so anybody that sits with you and says, here’s the future of the content business, can you say “full of shit” in the Council of Foreign Relations? (Laughter.)
HAASS: Once you can say that here. (Laughter.)
PLEPLER: (Inaudible)—are full of shit. (Laughter.) So, you know, Shonda Rhimes is a genius, but I promise you when they were making Bridgerton they were—had their moments where they woke up at two in the morning and went, is this going to work? (Inaudible)—costume it.
So just take—you know, the great Ahmet Ertegun, the music impresario, said to me at the beginning of my career, he said, kid, let me tell you the secret to show business. When you bump into a genius hold on tight. That’s true.
HAASS: As good a place as any to say thank you to Richard, both for—
PLEPLER: Thank you for having me.
HAASS: —for this and for his many forms of involvement in the Council on Foreign Relations. I want to thank those who joined us virtually. I want to thank those who joined us physically. Those who joined us here you get the added reward that we have a reception out this door and to the left, and the food at the reception, the drink at the reception is actual, not virtual.
So join me in thanking Richard Plepler. (Applause.)