Those statements suggest that AT&T wouldn’t get in Mr. Plepler’s way. But at another conference, Mr. Stephenson let slip one comment that hinted at a more aggressive brand of corporate oversight.
“It will cause Plepler at HBO to panic when I say this,” he said, “but can you begin to think about things like ‘Game of Thrones,’ as an example, where, in a mobile environment, a 60-minute episode may not be the best experience? Should you think about 20-minute episodes?”
Although HBO still generates big revenue ($6.3 billion last year), its status as the ultimate prestige network is under some threat. While it has led all TV networks in Emmy nominations for 17 consecutive years, that gap is narrowing. Netflix, which makes shows like “Stranger Things” and “The Crown,” had 20 fewer nominations than HBO last year; three years ago that gap was more than 90.
And in an effort to be all things to all viewers, Netflix turns out programming in dramas, comedies, stand-up specials, documentary series and unscripted reality shows. To counter that approach, HBO executives have begun describing their network as the home of curated content, something like a high-end content boutique.
But that strategy comes with some risk.
With far fewer releases each year than Netflix, each of HBO’s shows is under more pressure to succeed. “Here and Now,” a drama from Alan Ball that premiered this year, has already been canceled. “Succession,” the network’s new drama about a warring media family, has had so-so ratings and mixed reviews, but HBO has already renewed it for a second season.
“Game of Thrones,” the most popular series in the network’s history, has six episodes left before it bows out. The network has ordered a pilot for a potential spinoff series, with at least three others in development. “Westworld” has had steady ratings in its second season, drawing more than two million viewers an episode, according to Nielsen’s delayed-viewing data. That’s bigger than anything else on premium cable right now.
The network’s next big bet is on a limited series starring Amy Adams and directed by the “Big Little Lies” director Jean-Marc Vallée, “Sharp Objects,” which premieres in July. If HBO executives knew that “Here and Now” was a miss — as its sedate marketing campaign suggested — they are telegraphing the opposite for “Sharp Objects.”