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Banff World Media Festival: ‘Healthy Neurosis’ Part of HBO Secret Sauce, Says Plepler

The key to HBO’s creative and commercial success is a culture where staffers are pushed to innovate constantly, said Richard Plepler, HBO chairman and CEO, and freely dissent with upper management when it strikes them. Plepler offered a peek inside the HBO strategy, and culture, during a keynote session at the Banff World Media Festival. “You can have greatest strategy in the world, but if the culture is screwed up, I don’t care how good the strategy is,” said Plepler. “You’re gonna have a problem.”

Plepler was in Alberta to claim the Banff Festival’s Company of Distinction honor, which he stressed was a companywide effort. He spoke of a “healthy neurosis” within HBO. “We’re a bunch of healthy neurotics,” he said. “I’m one, and I’m surrounded by them. That’s a good thing. There’s not a scintilla of complacency inside our company.”

He said HBO thrives on attracting top talent with their passion projects, and letting talent do their thing with minimal network interference, which results in the producers talking up HBO to their creative colleagues.

“Our brand is a magnet for the best writers, the best producers, the best directors,” he said. “The best talent wants to come into our home and [create].”

Joining Plepler in Banff was new programming president Casey Bloys, among others. The keynote featured first peeks at new series Westworld and Big Little Lies.

Plepler mentioned HBO’s 130 million global subscribers, and said there’s lots of opportunity to grow the number, especially with mobile products such as HBO Now and unique voices like Jon Stewart and Bill Simmons. He said HBO Go usage is up 42% year over year, and mentioned “millions and millions and millions of additional homes (that) are interested in the value proposition of HBO.”

Interviewed by Canadian TV host Ben Mulroney, Plepler relayed a story about former New York Times editor A.M. Rosenthal. “I want my readers to pick up the paper every day, and at least once, look through it and say, holy shit!" said Plepler, imitating the late newspaper man. “We want our subscribers to turn to our network at least a few times during the week and say, holy shit!”

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.