Legendary HBO Chief Executive Joins Forces with Apple TV+

Richard Plepler Credit: lev radin / Shutterstock
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Richard Plepler, the former HBO executive who began “television’s second golden age” has just signed an exclusive five-year deal with Apple to bring his creative talents and leadership to Apple TV+.

If there are still any doubts remaining that Apple intends to turn its Apple TV+ streaming service into a media powerhouse in its own right, this deal should turn that notion on its head. While many people outside of the entertainment industry have probably never heard of Richard Plepler, he’s actually one of the most powerful and influential people in the entertainment industry, and you’ve most definitely seen the results of his creative instincts and leadership.

During his 27-year stint at HBO, Plepler was the driving force that shaped that network into the cultural and business phenomenon that it is today, and is widely hailed as the visionary responsible for bringing Game of Thrones to the network. There’s little doubt that HBO wouldn’t be what it is today without Plepler’s influence, guidance, and leadership.

So naturally Apple wants to bring some of that same magic to Apple TV+, which seems to have ambitions that are more in line with becoming the next HBO than it does in pursuing a more Netflix-like content strategy.

Creativity and Connections

Unlike the core dream team that it originally created with Sony TV executives Jamie Erlicht and Zack Van Amburg, Apple hasn’t brought Plepler directly into the fold, but according to The New York Times, its deal with the former HBO Chief Executive will bring everything he and his new production company will be working on directly and exclusively to Apple TV+.

Richard Plepler began at HBO in a relatively junior role working in public relations and producing a few documentaries, but his great creative instincts and willingness to take some big risks quickly vaulted him to the senior executive ranks, becoming co-president in 2007 alongside Eric Kessler, where the pair would reinvigorate the network with new programming to draw in a new generation of viewers. Over the course of five years as co-president, he was responsible for not only bringing Game of Thrones to the network, but a whole slate of other popular shows like True Blood, Boardwalk Empire, Veep, and The Newroom, resulting in more than 160 Emmys for HBO during his tenure. In 2012 he ascended to Chief Executive Officer, where he served for almost seven years before departing last February after the network was acquired by AT&T and it began shuffling things around.

However, Plepler was also famous for having made a huge number of connections in the industry, both before and during his tenure as CEO, and has been widely regarded as one of the most influential executives in the entertainment world. He leveraged at least some of those to create his own production company, Eden Productions. In an interview shortly after his departure from HBO, Plepler made it clear that he was really more interested in pursuing a role as a producer rather than returning to the boardroom.

It was instantaneously clear to me that I had a wonderful and very privileged run at HBO and I wasn’t going to be able to duplicate that again. And I didn’t want to try to duplicate that again. It felt very clear to me that I just wanted to do my own thing.

Richard Plepler

Unlike many entertainment executives, Plepler regularly entertained and socialized with famous politicians and writers, and was known for hosting lavish dinner parties and salons at his apartment on New York’s Upper East Side, where he became regarded as a sort of patron of writers, actors, and producers, building relationships that are rare between entertainment executives and the creative talent that bolster their productions.

Putting the Deal Together

We first saw reports back in November that Apple and Plepler had been in talks about joining forces, but it seems that Apple had been courting the former HBO executive for a while. The Times notes that Apple Senior VP Eddy Cue had been a “longtime admirer” of Plepler’s, after working with him to collaborate on bringing the HBO Now streaming service to Apple’s set-top box back in 2015. In his role as Senior Vice President of Internet Software and Services, Apple TV+ ultimately comes under Cue’s purview, and it was he who hired Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht from Sony to head up the company’s new entertainment division back in 2017.

Following Plepler’s rather abrupt departure from HBO, it wasn’t long before Cue reached out to him, not so much to make an offer but to just suggest that they have a chat once things settled down. Plepler told the Times that following that, he had conversations with a number of other people about his next step, but his only “serious” talks were with Apple, since he felt that the nascent streaming service would be a really good place for him to make an impact.

I thought that Apple was the right idea very quickly, just because it was embryonic enough that I thought maybe, you know, I could make a little contribution there.

Richard Plepler

In July, Plepler met with Apple’s dynamic duo of former Sony TV execs, Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht, to feel them out about the idea of a partnership, and found them extremely receptive to the idea. He followed up with Cue at the Sun Valley media and technology conference and the beginnings of a deal were born.

In the new deal, Eden Productions will make content in pretty much every category — television series, documentaries, and feature films — exclusively for Apple TV+. While it’s unclear what exactly we can expect to come out of Plepler’s production company, when we look at the projects with which he’s been involved in the past, and the number of contacts and connections he brings to the table, there’s no doubt it’s going to be some pretty exciting stuff, and will continue to reflect Apple’s more “boutique” approach to creating carefully crafted quality content for Apple TV+ in the same vein as HBO, rather than the “throw-everything-to-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks” strategy that most rival streaming services like Netflix have taken.

Nonetheless, as Plepler notes, it’s not a zero-sum game. “There is plenty of room out there for everybody to do well and for everybody to produce their vision of good content,” he says, “I don’t think of it for two minutes as rivalling HBO.”

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