When Richard Plepler left his perch as head of HBO in February, it signalled the end of an era for a cable network synonymous with high-quality television.
In recent months, the 59-year-old magnate has been camped out in a brownstone on New York’s Upper East Side plotting his comeback. There he started a new company called RLP & Co, with the goal of continuing to make boundary-pushing dramas, comedies and documentaries — although it was initially unclear who might distribute them.
Mr Plepler’s plans came into focus this week with the news that he is nearing an exclusive production deal with Apple, the tech giant that is pushing into Hollywood with a new television streaming service. The deal is not done yet, although people close to the negotiations expect it to be signed in the next week or so.
His arrival at Apple would be a coup for its service, which has been scrutinised for launching this month with only a handful of shows, compared to the vast libraries of rivals Disney and Netflix. Critics also panned Apple’s marquee series, The Morning Show starring Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon, which the tech group had shelled out more than $250m to make — calling it “muddled” and “a well-polished snore”.
But landing Mr Plepler, one of the most well-regarded names in Hollywood, signals that Apple is more serious about its entertainment plans than the industry had believed.
Apple and Plepler share ‘sense of showmanship’
Mr Plepler’s arrival at Apple would present a fresh challenge to Netflix, which has battled with HBO for coveted Emmy awards in recent years. HBO has won more than 160 of the gongs since 2013, when Mr Plepler became chief executive of the network, receiving more nominations than any other network each year until last year, when Netflix nabbed more nods.
Apple certainly has the cash to meet Mr Plepler’s ambitions. It has committed more than $6bn to making shows for its Apple TV+ service. More than that, though, Eddy Cue, who leads Apple’s services business, has long admired Mr Plepler’s management of HBO and had previously tried to tap Mr Plepler for Apple, according to people familiar with the matter.
After AT&T’s purchase of Time Warner closed last year, Mr Plepler chafed against his new bosses, John Stankey and Randall Stephenson, who he viewed as too focused on data and out of touch with the entertainment business.
His relationship with the top brass at Apple has been more harmonious. One film-maker who has worked with Apple noted the company’s “theatric sense of showmanship” — a big-bang marketing approach that may prove a good fit with Mr Plepler’s style.
“They really want to start out as very curated, all high end and premium, so it fits the Apple brand,” said one Hollywood executive who has worked with the group. “They are aiming for the top.”
Rich Greenfield, a partner at the technology research firm LightShed Partners, said Apple and Mr Plepler would be a “brilliant” match.
“Since the first day when Apple described its vision with Spielberg, Oprah, Reese Witherspoon and others, it always seemed they aspire to be an HBO-like premium product,” he said.
Quality over quantity
Apple is focusing on quality over quantity in its programming slate, said people familiar with its plans. This would also go over well with Mr Plepler, who bristled at directions from AT&T to increase the amount of HBO programming in order to compete with the streamers, said people familiar with the situation.
While rivals Netflix and WarnerMedia are spending hundreds of millions to buy old favourites such as Seinfeld and Friends to beef up their back catalogues, Apple is not interested in these deals, said people familiar with its plans.
One person close to Apple noted that a typical HBO subscriber only watches a few select hit shows each year and ignores the deeper library that is available. Besides, Apple TV+ is embedded within Apple’s television app, which also offers access to rival streaming services.
The installed base advantage
Apple’s push into TV content and other services is an attempt to leverage its record “installed base”, estimated at about 1bn users of 1.5bn devices. New purchases of iPhones, which account for roughly half of Apple revenue, are declining, but Apple can mitigate the damage if it is able to create new lines of revenue from customers.
The iPhone maker is offering a free 12-month trial for Apple TV+ to anyone who purchases a new iPhone, computer or iPad. With iPhone sales alone at roughly 200m devices per year, Apple should be able to grab 100m subscribers within three or four years, said Wedbush analyst Daniel Ives, making it competitive with Netflix and its 160m subscribers.
Apple declined to comment on viewership or subscriber numbers for the Apple TV+ service, which launched on November 1.
Bundling is a key element of the race to sign up streaming customers. Disney, which won 10m subscribers within 24 hours of its streaming service launch this week, is offering Disney+ free for a year to some customers of Verizon, the largest US telecoms provider.
Apple’s determination to land Mr Plepler, however, suggests content may still be king.
“I think the industry continues to underestimate how serious Apple is, but with 200m households that buy Apple devices every year . . . that’s a staggering potential audience,” Mr Greenfield said. “The key is to make great content.”