Former WarnerMedia, Showtime Exec Says Paramount Should Merge Streamers, HBO Max Can Succeed While Cutting Costs
The world of television has always been one in a constant state of flux as technology and audience needs are never not changing. But, the last few decades have been an increasingly turbulent time as the industry moved from broadcast to cable to streaming. And one of the people at the center of many of these transformations is former FOX, NBC, Showtime, and HBO Max executive Bob Greenblatt.
Throughout his career, Greenblatt helped develop “Beverly Hills, 90210,” “Party of Five,” “Melrose Place,” “The X-Files,” “Six Feet Under,” “Weeds,” “Dexter,” Shameless,” “Smash,” “The Voice,” “The Gilded Age,” and many other popular programs across numerous linear networks. But his last TV gig was as the chairman of WarnerMedia under AT&T. A year and a half into the job — and just three months after overseeing the launch of HBO Max — Greenblatt was fired as the telecommunications company restructured its operations in August of 2020.
Greenblatt recently told Puck News, “AT&T was not the company to be the engine behind a global streaming company.” The telecom conglomerate agreed and announced that it was selling WarnerMedia to Discovery just nine months later.
The executive has now set up his own production company, The Green Room, that has a deal with Lionsgate, and he is promoting his career-spanning memoir “The Rockford Files: Epiphanies in Show Business.” In discussing the book, Greenblatt spoke with Puck's Matthew Belloni about his career and his thoughts on his many former employers.
Greenblatt was not surprised that AT&T decided to get out of the television business as his experience with WarnerMedia’s then-parent company indicated that they were uncomfortable with the amount of money that it would take to launch a streaming service as ambitious as HBO Max.
“Financially, they were very worried about how much we had to spend to launch (HBO Max),” he said. “But I thought they would give it a few years to get on its feet. Things were moving in the right direction. There was growth, and the programming was coming online. And then suddenly it was, ‘Let’s pull the rug and get out.’”
That decision for AT&T to abandon its streaming efforts came on the heels of what was a less than ideal rollout for the streamer. Not only did the HBO Max launch come just a few months into the COVID-19 pandemic, but due to regulatory and shareholder issues, the process was unavoidably truncated.
“It wasn’t disappointing in terms of subscriber numbers,” Greenblatt told Belloni. “We didn’t have that ‘Friends’ reunion, or ‘Flight Attendant,’ and we didn’t have time to get a ‘Mandalorian’ ready — we didn’t have a marquee show. And it was May 2020, the worst time in the world. But look at it now. It’s a success story. We just didn’t have enough time. If we had started planning it 18 months earlier, it would have been different. But AT&T couldn’t fight the government any faster than it did. And [AT&T CEO John] Stankey promised the AT&T board he was going to do it.”
Despite the streamer’s complicated debut, Greenblatt agreed that the controversial move made by his successor Jason Kilar was the right one; in fact, he tried to make it happen before his ouster. In late 2020, WarnerMedia announced that throughout 2021, all of the studio’s feature films would release day and date on HBO Max, whether they were also premiering in theaters or not.
While the move undoubtedly helped bolster the then-fledgling service, many of the creatives involved in the films were not consulted before an announcement had been made, leading to anger and distrust across Hollywood. When Discovery took over WarnerMedia, Kilar — like Greenblatt — was let go, but on his way out the door, he defended his strategic gamble saying, “It was the right decision, because we were in the middle of the pandemic.”
While Greenblatt does not appear to disagree with that point, he does seem to question how that decision was handled.
“I was actually a proponent of putting the movies on HBO Max as soon as we could. We were trying to get a consensus in the business in figuring out how to do that. Then I left, and suddenly it was a done deal without talking to anyone,” he said. “[But] a consensus should have been built before doing it, but it helped HBO Max in that first year. It was just not executed in the best way.”
While the streamer has moved beyond the day-and-date controversy of 2021 to amass 92.1 million global subscribers — when combined with smaller corporate sibling discovery+ — the recent strategic changes at the now unified Warner Bros. Discovery have many people questioning what the future of the company looks like.
New CEO David Zaslav plans to spend less on content and actively avoid the ballooning budgetary wars. However, the company’s shareholders still need to see growth — either in terms of subscribers or revenue, or preferably both — meaning that Zas has a very thin tightrope to walk.
Belloni asked Greenblatt if he believed that it was impossible for streamers to spend less while also continuing to grow, especially domestically.
“It just might be. But if anyone can do it, it’s the HBO side of things,” he said. “That’s what they’ve always done. That company was hugely profitable by doing just a handful of shows. There was never a volume strategy. We tried to apply that to the HBO Max side. But can you keep 150 million subscribers happy month to month with that strategy?”
Only time will tell if Zaslav’s belt-tightening will end up damaging the streaming service’s value proposition, but as WBD moves forward with plans to combine HBO Max and discovery+ into a single service in the summer of 2023, the conversation turned to another of Greenblatt’s former networks.
Currently, Paramount Global operates multiple premium streaming services, including SHOWTIME, Paramount+, and BET+. As the world of streaming continues to enter the consolidation and rebundling era, Greenblatt believes that Paramount should be the next to move to a single streamer by combining all of the content from its existing services and its cadre of cable networks.
“I would absolutely combine it. Put all that programming together,” he said. “I know it’s not as easy as just saying that. You have to go to all the MVPDs [multichannel video programming distributors] and get them on board, but we did that at HBO. But why shouldn’t Paramount and Showtime and MTV and TV Land all be under one big umbrella?”
While Paramount has long-touted its breadth and depth of content, the company has yet to fully merge its services — although it has begun offering deals and bundles for Paramount+ and SHOWTIME. While that strategy is not what Greenblatt would advise, it is at least a cohesive plan, unlike what many believe Comcast and NBCUniversal are undertaking with Peacock.
Greenblatt took over as the chairman of NBC Entertainment as Comcast was rechristening the operation under the NBCU banner. And perhaps because he was not part of the launch of Peacock, the exec appears to be just as confused by the company’s strategy for the streamer as the rest of us are.
“I think it’s hard to be half in it,” he said. “I don’t mean you have to spend $15 billion a year on content. But if you’re in it, you’re in it, and you figure out how to put all that content into one service or you bundle it like Hulu and Disney+. You have to go all in.”
Through his production company, Greenblatt is staying active, producing projects for both stage and screen. But based on his interview with Belloni, it appears that he is more than open to a return to the executive ranks, but with a caveat. Greenblatt is excited about working on the creative end of projects but does not appear to be eager to return to the corporate machinations and mergers and acquisitions that make up so much of the television business these days.
“It’d be ideal if I didn’t have any of that,” he told Belloni.