MIPCOM ’19: WarnerMedia’s Bob Greenblatt on HBO Max, linear’s prospects in DTC era

Over the span of his career, Robert Greenblatt has embraced, and perhaps even chased, change. As a producer and network executive his mantra has remained consistent: “Look outside the norm.” Accepting ...
October 16, 2019

Over the span of his career, Robert Greenblatt has embraced, and perhaps even chased, change. As a producer and network executive his mantra has remained consistent: “Look outside the norm.”

Accepting the honor of MIPCOM’s Personality of the Year yesterday (October 15) as part of a keynote conversation, Greenblatt elaborated on how that principle has guided his choices from his days with the then-fledgling Fox network, to his time at the helm of NBC Entertainment, to his current post as chairman of WarnerMedia Entertainment. With the latter he is once again riding the waves of change by leading the charge for the conglomerate’s direct to consumer offering, HBO Max, while also steering its linear properties – HBO, CNN, TBS and TNT among them.

In a media landscape that is exploding with more and more outlets angling for eyeballs, it’s hard to say which is the greater challenge – launching a new content platform or keeping existing linear networks intact in the midst of the sea change. Indeed, at one point Greenblatt admitted that linear TV is “a declining business no matter how you look at it,” but he tempered that by saying that even as viewing habits change and people gravitate to different devices to view content, the model is still “very healthy.”

Greenblatt also took the opportunity to assure the audience – and, in turn, HBO’s audience – that the premium pay network was not going to undergo a radical overhaul in the wake of recent press stories speculating on directives from WarnerMedia CEO and AT&T CCO John Stankey to beef up its content offering to fend off the threat from the global streamers.

“HBO is one of the great brands of all time, in our opinion,” he said. “People know it for its excellence and the number of great shows is staggering. There is no plan to do anything but keep that intact and exactly what it is. There’s a certain number that I think is a comfortable number of shows and we’re increasing it slightly, but it’s nothing to be alarmed about.”

But shepherding the company’s linear nets into the future is only one part of Greenblatt’s current remit, and a sizable chunk of the interview focused on the upcoming arrival of HBO Max. Set to launch in 2020, the platform has announced several shows on its slate as well as significant hires in the unscripted and doc space, and Greenblatt says more announcements are on the way by the end of this month concerning a “big new slate of shows that run the gamut.”

“The future is direct to consumer, there is no doubt about it,” he said. “WarnerMedia is aggressively moving into the space. The assets are there, and the buy in from the parent company is strong.”

Addressing the international delegates on hand, Greenblatt said the streamer will be “wide open” when it comes to acquiring and showcasing international content.

As for the mix of programming, while much of the news thus far has concerned original content, Greenblatt said that movies would also be “a big driver” as will series. “We’re looking at acquiring shows but also mining the libraries we have.”

With CNN as part of the network roster, and CNN Films a significant source for non-fiction series and feature docs, Greenblatt said HBO Max will have content from that library at its disposal, and the division will also be able to create content specifically for HBO Max.

And as for how the programming will be commissioned and curated, with HBO Max being fresh out of the gate, building an effective user algorithm will take time. But with his digital team in place, Greenblatt said he hopes to “find a great balance between the computer and the human being when it comes to curating.

“You need algorithms when you reach a certain scale,” he said. “But, at least initially, we are going to be doing it the old fashioned way with scheduling.” His aim, he said, is to ultimately build an algorithm “that will hopefully be more personal to you” and help the user find the content they want in less time.

Time will tell when it comes to how HBO Max will fare in an increasingly crowded SVODscape when it launches next spring. And industry watchers will also be paying close attention to how the range of streamers emerging from the content business’s heaviest hitters will impact their linear TV counterparts.

“We have no interest in getting out of the linear business,” Greenblatt summed up. “I think the whole ecosystem can work together.”

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