HBO's Richard Plepler got schooled by tech whizzes

Behind the scenes at HBO, a new way to watch
Behind the scenes at HBO, a new way to watch

When HBO started thinking about selling subscriptions via the Internet, the network's CEO Richard Plepler brought in tech whizzes as teachers.

"I went to school," he says. "I brought in all kinds of people who knew an enormous amount, much more than I did about this... and made sure that we had the right people around us."

It is a hiring process that continues to this day. HBO in 2015 is a fundamentally different company than it was just 10 years ago. First it created an app that made it easy to stream shows. Then, earlier this year, it started to let people sign up for HBO online, bypassing the normal cable or satellite subscription method.

So far, Plepler says, the subscribers that are coming in the door via the HBO web site are not cannibalizing the company's core cable partnerships.

"This is really about a multilateral approach to distribution, not a binary approach to distribution," he says.

Related: Jon Stewart strikes deal with HBO

Paying for HBO on the web is one option, paying through a cable package is another option. Having both gives HBO "maximum flexibility," as Plepler puts it.

Flexibility is what the audience demands. As Jenni Konner, an executive producer of HBO's "Girls," says, "I just want everything to be available to me immediately, the second I want to see it."

That's an expectation that didn't exist a few short years ago. "We get a taste of something and then we just want more," Konner believes, comparing it to expectations for connectivity at 30,000 feet: "It's like the Wi-Fi on an airplane. You're like, 'Oh, my God. I can use Wi-Fi in an airplane,' and then two weeks later you're like, Why is this so hard? Why does it keep dropping out?'"

HBO relies on an outside partner, MLB Advanced Media, the technology arm of the baseball league, to make sure its streaming service is always on.

Dozens of new HBO employees also help make the streaming experience better and better. In 2013 the network — which like CNN is owned by Time Warner — opened an office in Seattle. Earlier this year it leased four floors of a building.

"We needed to get equally conversant with the technology side as we had been on the creative side and the distribution side," Plepler explains.

When the network is hiring engineers for its in-house jobs, Plepler says applicants are enticed by the glossy HBO brand, the same way new subscribers are.

"The brand is very powerful, and people understand that the brand speaks for quality," he says, describing a core tenet of media that hasn't changed.

With all this talk about technology, "at the same time, you need to parallel process and make sure that your concentrating on the core essence of what you do for a living," Plepler says, "which in our instance is creating great content."

HBO's "Game of Thrones" picked up the Emmy Award for best drama this fall while "Veep" won best comedy, part of the network's sweep of the annual awards for outstanding television.

Says Plepler: "What we want to do is continue to make and own the best content that we can, license the best Hollywood movies that we can, and make sure that we are delivering that product to our consumers, both here and around the world, in as many different ways as possible, so that we are never in a position where any particular generation of customers says, 'I can't get HBO the way I want to get HBO.' "

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