AT&T’s new streaming service chief opens up about his strategy to expand a treasured brand with 10,000 hours of programs targeting a younger demo.
Tucked in the top drawer of Robert Greenblatt’s desk at HBO Max’s Burbank headquarters is a years-old pitch that never got much traction.
Dated August 2015, the multipage deck outlines the former NBC Entertainment chairman’s vision for an over-the-top streaming service at NBCUniversal. Per Greenblatt, his bosses weren’t remotely interested at the time. They had a stake in Hulu, they reasoned, to say nothing of a cable company in parent Comcast to protect. So Greenblatt carried on at the network, which he’d taken from last place to first in his seven-year tenure on the back of such hits as The Voice, This Is Us and a collection of live musicals.
Four and a half years later, Greenblatt, 59, has moved from NBC to WarnerMedia, where he now oversees a 3,000-person group that includes HBO, TBS, TNT and the forthcoming streaming service HBO Max. The latter, which will cost $14.99 a month, is poised to launch in May, right around the time that NBCU, now eager to be competitive, rolls out a service of its own. In his first nine months on the job, Greenblatt has been busy building out a team, a strategy and a slate.
Seated in his office in early December, the TV veteran, who reports to WarnerMedia CEO John Stankey, opened up about his transition and his plans. His only request: that there be no mention of the often-used phrase “streaming wars.”
In September 2018, you announced you were leaving NBC, a year or so into your latest deal there. Walk me through that decision.
I’d been thinking about moving on for a while. I felt like I’d done everything I could do at NBC, and the group I put together was phenomenal. And this is sort of my pattern. [Greenblatt also left Showtime after a successful seven-year tenure.] I like a new challenge, and I’m not the best at just maintaining something. Not to say that was an easy job. The broadcast world has never been more complicated, but we moved all the big pieces around and turned the battleship around. I first looked inside the company, and we talked about different [potential roles] over there.
What would that have looked like?
The one thing I was intrigued about never happened, which was if Comcast had gotten the Fox entity, there would have been a real changeup of a lot of things inside that company. But they didn’t, and it just didn’t look like there was a big, new challenge. I will say, and [NBCU CEO] Steve Burke might disagree, there was no real plan when I left in September to go over-the-top. There was a lot of discussion internally. In fact, we’d started that conversation four years ago.
How was it received at the time?
Not well at all. I might have stuck around to do that if that had been presented to me. But Burke was very generous in letting me leave.
There were lots of rumblings about your next act being Broadway related …
Yes, if I want to be poor, that’s what I would do. And lose millions of dollars! (Laughs.) No, my heart is in the executive ranks and, honestly, it was really about going direct to the consumer that was interesting to me. I had some conversations with some other people in town, who shall remain nameless, who were also going direct to consumer.
HBO and HBO Max: How do you distinguish the two?
They’re separate, but that’s the old way of thinking about it. They’re ultimately going to live together, bundled next to each another in the same app. So, yes, they’re separate departments but they’ll coalesce into one unified experience.
Why are they different departments? And will they always be?
In five or 10 years, do we do more consolidation? I’m not sure. At the moment, HBO is the signature of the platform, and nothing is more important than keeping it intact. It has a slightly older, 40-plus audience, and we know what kinds of programming they do. But there’s a lot they don’t do.
So what is HBO Max?
Max is the rest of it. Kids all the way up to the young adults. And different genres, like YA or unscripted, which HBO largely doesn’t do. We’re trying really hard to assign the same quality level and curated feeling that HBO has. It’ll never be 50,000 hours of programming. We’re starting with 10,000. When you look at 50,000 or even more when you go to Amazon, I just don’t know who that programming is reaching. We know statistically that 50 percent of usage in these platforms is through the 100 top titles. So, where are the other 50,000 titles? Who are they reaching?
Have the two divisions competed for a project?
We haven’t yet, and we’re trying to keep things separate enough that the town knows where to go. Although, this town is going to go where you can go, right? If HBO passes, you’re going to go to HBO Max.
The lines seem to be blurrier in film, where, for instance, HBO Max and New Line, both owned by AT&T, competed for Olivia Wilde’s next film. (New Line won.)
Right. Honestly, we’re trying to figure out how important original movies are for the service and how many we should have. We know blockbusters are important, which we have thankfully through HBO. But even HBO has significantly reduced its number of original films. On the other hand, because we have Warner Bros. and New Line, and they want to make middle-range movies that don’t work at the box office anymore, there’s now a lot of dialogue about what they could make for us. We’re just figuring out how many we need, should we consider a theatrical release, how do we window. We’ve bought five or six so far for this first year. Greg Berlanti is making a couple for us. Reese Witherspoon is doing a couple. There are a couple musicals that I might be working on that could be really cool. You knew I’d find a way to work those in. (Laughs.)
It was recently announced that the Melissa McCarthy comedy Superintelligence would move to HBO Max. What did those conversations entail, and how does it impact talent and deals?
The good news is talent feels very comfortable on streaming platforms now. I mean, this is one where I’ll give Netflix the nod. I think [Warner Bros.] took a look at that movie and thought, “What are our chances of making it a success in this new world where it’s really hard to get audiences to go to midlevel movies?” So they came to us and said, “Hey, could this be something that works for you?” And we went, “Yeah, we’d be thrilled to have Melissa McCarthy on our platform.” In the future, it won’t be a last-minute switch-up; it’ll be more strategic. But one of the fun parts of this job, and I didn’t have this at all at NBCUniversal, is that I’m constantly meeting with [other division heads, including] Toby [Emmerich, of Warner Bros. Pictures Group] and Carolyn [Blackwood, of New Line].
Take me through the decision to call the service HBO Max. Did you consider names without HBO in it?
We did a lot of research, and as great as HBO is, there are some negatives to it. It’s higher price point and doesn’t automatically include the whole family. You think it’s an adult service. So there were those concerns we thought about. On the other hand, there’s no greater brand we could come up with to [sell the] service and make it immediately recognizable and stand for something.
How do you alleviate concerns that this will tarnish the HBO brand?
I think it’s more the press’ concern than the public’s, honestly. And the people at HBO are fine. But, look, the dirty little secret is that HBO has hit a ceiling. It can’t grow. In a world where there’s Netflix and Amazon, the only way to grow, I guarantee you, is to bundle it with something else that’s going to lift it. And if that something else didn’t exist in Max, HBO would be in a very precarious place. Everybody thought Dish would come running back [from a carriage dispute] when Game of Thrones came back on. And they went, “You know what? It’s too expensive. We have other services and we have to lower the price point for our customer.” That’s going to happen more and more.
Warner Bros. has recently signed massive, cross-company deals with J.J. Abrams and Berlanti and has been part of heated bidding wars for others. Is there a ceiling, and how close are we to it?
We’ve let a few go. [David] Benioff and [D.B.] Weiss. [Lisa] Joy and [Jonathan] Nolan. We follow a different metric than a Netflix does. They don’t necessarily have to show profit. We do. Go figure. (Laughs.) It’s the job of Casey [Bloys, of HBO] and Kevin [Reilly, of HBO Max] to figure out who is the next Nolan and Joy. Nobody knew who they were four years ago. Now, you want to retain [talent] if you can, but once the market goes crazy, you’ve got to make a decision, and at a certain price point, we will step out.
How do you stay disciplined in that kind of frenzied marketplace?
In the case of people who already have shows [with us], where you can look at what the backend is going to be, we can put that in the pot and make it a bigger deal than it would be if it was somebody who doesn’t have a show — like Phoebe Waller-Bridge. She’s a deal we would’ve loved to have had [Waller-Bridge signed with Amazon], but she didn’t come to that with profits from Westworld [as Joy and Nolan did]. Each one is a different equation, and that’s where the Sandra Deweys and the Glenn Whiteheads [both in business affairs] become our heroes. They figure out what is the value of all the ancillary parts of the deal. And then, at a certain point, it’s just your gut that tells you what you should or shouldn’t do.
The competition for library rights, be it for The Office or Friends, has become similarly frenzied. Is this the new normal or simply a moment in time?
It’s a combination. In three years, I don’t think these libraries are going to be at this level. With us and [NBCU’s] Peacock starting up and Netflix trying to maintain what it had, I think it’s a moment of everybody raising their game …
I know you want to say “in streaming wars” …
(Laughs.) Price war! There’s a price war. But there aren’t that many of those shows that really command it. There’s probably 10 or 12, and they’re all sitcoms.
Have we exhausted them?
Maybe there’s another one or two out there. And look, they’ll come up every four or five years. But Friends is locked up. Big Bang Theory. The Office. South Park, Simpsons, Family Guy. We would’ve loved to have had Seinfeld, it could have been another great foundation for the platform. We thought, “Oh, it’s an older show, it’s been in syndication a long time, we’ll see what that generates.” And hello, it generated a whole lot. (Laughs.) We have two or three of those [foundation titles] already, so we yielded.
Bonnie Hammer, who bought The Office when she was briefly running Peacock, said the fantasy was to reboot the show, too. Is that a goal for you with these library acquisitions?
Only when the company owns the underlying show. In that case, it does. But, look, I was talking to [series creator] Greg Daniels four years ago about rebooting The Office, way before this. He wants to do it and actually has an idea for it.
Doing a Friends revival of some kind has been a pipe dream of yours for years. Where are you at with that?
I got [the cast] to do the James Burrows tribute special when I was at NBC. And all I will say is, “We’re talking about it.” We’ve been drilling down on what it could be and trying to see if everybody’s really on board and interested. And if so, can we make the right deals for everybody. We’re starting it as a special. It’s possible there could be something ongoing, but it would be in steps. We’re far from that.
You have intimated that you’ll be dropping shows on HBO Max episodically rather than all at once. How did you decide on that approach, and what did you learn in the decision process?
We mirror exactly what’s on HBO, and we didn’t want to suddenly remake HBO linear and say we’re going to drop a whole series on day one. But we’re probably going to play around a bit, here and there. We may drop all episodes of a reality show, if there are six or eight, at once. But by and large, it’ll be episodic, probably with a two- or three-episode dump at the beginning.
You’re a few months out from launch now. How transparent do you intend to be vis a vis ratings?
I don’t know yet. I think it’s going to be about the number of subscribers before it is about views. Does anyone even know what a view is? But I think we are heading toward more transparency because the guilds are going to require it, and we have to figure this out.
The threat of a 2020 strike stemming from such issues is very real. How do you prepare yourself?
Unfortunately, there’s no real way to circumvent the backtrack that you have with a strike. Even if you get ahead and get things early and stockpile, the odds of actually making those things diminish because the sister and brother guilds won’t agree to work. Crossing the picket line becomes really tricky for people, and we understand that. But it’s not going to be good for anybody.
A lot. It’s good to have people out in front of you. It’s good to hear what the press says, or doesn’t say, what they like or don’t like. And it’s good to hear what Wall Street thinks. We read it all carefully.
Interview edited for length and clarity.