Exclusive: Casey Bloys shares HBO’s new playbook

The Last Of Us is HBO’s most recent new launch to have landed with global audiences

HBO and HBO Max chairman & president Casey Bloys tells Richard Middleton why the ‘Netflix correction’ was necessary, how international fits into the WBD strategy and his unlikely love for Chopped

Two things about Casey Bloys that you might not know: he is a self-confessed Chopped addict despite having a particular dislike of cooking; and he’s no gamer.

Another detail that frequently gets glossed over is that the HBO & HBO Max chairman & president studied economics at university. He knows numbers.

He also knows HBO inside out. Bloys is coming up to the two-decade anniversary of his time at the company, a stretch that began in the midst of seminal shows, The Sopranos and The Wire.

In more recent years, and more directly under his stewardship, HBO has managed to maintain a steady stream of hits that have stood out despite the barrage of quantity flooding the market. From Game Of Thrones, House Of The Dragon and Succession, to The Last Of Us and White Lotus, there have been forgotten flops but they tend to get lost among the towering highs.

Some things haven’t changed – his closest team at HBO also have long affiliations with the brand and there’s still that iconic ‘aah’ musical ident that you can hear right now in your head and which retains the power to send an excited buzz down the spine (although, it doesn’t seem to have a name).

But the turbulence affecting HBO’s flight has been constant over recent years: from AT&T to WarnerMedia and now Warner Bros. Discovery, owners have come and gone, as streaming has upended the industry. HBO has remained but the question now, as the landscape shifts again, seems to be, what’s next?

“Sometimes people seem to worry about HBO on our behalf and I’m like, “It’s OK, we feel good about this,” says Bloys, who – perhaps rather uniquely given his position as one of the industry’s top US execs – comes across as a genuinely likeable person. More importantly, it’s a view shared by many in the industry.

Having that in the bank is probably no bad thing, given the fairly unpleasant decisions Bloys and WBD have been making over the past year. There have been swinging cuts to content and staff, both in the US and globally, but the HBO topper is clear that there is now a singular focus: streaming has to pay.

A ‘dot-com’ style correction

“Everybody is trying to work it out,” he says, admitting that Netflix has a head start on others. The industry turmoil that followed the “Netflix correction” last year – which saw billions of dollars wiped off the share prices of media firms – reminded Bloys of the Dot-com crash in 2000, he adds.

“That [period] was so crazy, the valuations were so high and everybody was saying, ‘no, no, no. it’s a new paradigm.’ But having gone through that and having now gone through this, you can be sure eventually that the point, in any business, is to make money.”

And the correction was important, Bloys says, because “it brought everybody to their senses. [WBD CEO] David [Zaslav] was ahead of this. He was the one saying, ‘OK, how do we make money?’.”

“The correction brought everybody to their senses but David Zaslav was ahead of this – he was the one saying, ‘OK, how do we make money?” Casey Bloys

A key aspect remains around how shows are windowed, the HBO veteran says. “For HBO, we sold and made a lot of money from selling DVD’s. We also syndicated shows like Sex And The City, The Sopranos, Entourage, Band Of Brothers. That has always been an aspect of the business.

“What changed with streaming was the idea that you would spend massive amounts of money on these shows – which aren’t cheap – and then leave them in a library for eternity for $15 a month. Investors started to realise it didn’t add up.

“That’s what you’re seeing now with the upheaval in the industry – how are we going to produce these shows, how are we going to put them out and make money. That is very much up in the air right now.”

Bloys and WBD hope that Max, the recently unveiled consolidated streamer – combining Discovery+ shows and HBO Max programming – might be the answer.

“HBO used to be next to a wide array of programming, it lived [on cable] happily for many years. Obviously, that business is more challenged but the point of the cable bundle, and what we are now seeing streamers go to, is to have the widest array of programming possible to bring people in keep them.”

Bloys reflects on his own viewing habits and says the key is to “build out” the offering.

“The theory of the case, and why I think it makes sense, is that a lot of the shows that Discovery brings are programmes I watch – there are home renovation shows, House Hunters, there’s the Food Network.

“I don’t even like cooking but my kids got me into Chopped. Seriously, I don’t like cooking at all but I really got into it. The point is that when people watch TV, they are in a different state of mind and you want shows to do different things, that is what the cable bundle used to do.”

Succession’s fourth and final season is being released weekly around the world

Streamers plotting the future must now do something similar, Bloys says, and “that is what this new service will do.” But what about diluting the HBO brand?

“I’m not worried about HBO within that bundle – we survived on cable with lots of other programming around us. In this new offering, HBO will always have a special place highlighted within it.”

And, more importantly: “For the long-term health of HBO, we have to figure out a broad streaming world. We have to work out how to make streaming work, meaning how do we do this and make money.”

Tapping in tentpoles

Part of the “broadening out” plan lies in shows that extend beyond the HBO viewer, Bloys says. On the domestic US side, it could mean diving into internal resources for existing IP.

“We are very lucky to be part of Warner Bros. Discovery, because Warner Bros. itself has a lot of IP that we can use, the biggest examples being DC, with James [Gunn] and Peter [Safran] running that side.

“We did Peacemaker and we’ve got Colin Farrell in The Penguin, plus we have the Dune and IT prequels, so there are lots of places to go for those big broadcast tentpole shows. That is what we are doing with Max.”

And while The Last Of Us has almost single-handedly reignited the video game adaptation market, Bloys says there is no rush to find another piece of console-related IP to adapt.

“I knew the video game but I’m not a gamer at all. The decision wasn’t, ‘Here’s a big property so it must have a big built in audience, so therefore let’s develop it and turn it into a TV show’, which I think is the wrong way to develop something.”

It was instead because Craig Mazin, who Bloys worked with on Chernobyl, had brought it to him. “We said to him after Chernobyl, ‘tell us when you find a thing that you want to do’, and he came to us and said, Last Of Us. That said, I was interested in it being a big world and I wanted to see what Craig would do with that.”

But was there any fear that the show would simply join the myriad other poorly executed video game adaptations out there?

“To be honest, it wasn’t until the show came out and I was doing press that everybody started talking to me about the long history of failed video game adaptations. It wasn’t really my genre and I didn’t really think about it.”

For HBO, as opposed to the broader HBO Max remit, things have not changed, Bloys adds somewhat cryptically. “I’ve been here 19 years and most of my team have been here for that or longer and the key is there is no new mandate for HBO – there is no major change, we will just continue to do what we’re doing.”

That means “new takes, pushing boundaries, greenlighting shows you haven’t seen before.” But while the top US domestic team might not have changed too much, the international operation has.

Numerous execs were let go around the world last year, including most of the HBO Europe team, as WBD cut its spending and global commissioning plans. Bloys says the aim now is for the US and international teams to become more connected, with the latter operating under WBD International chief, Gerhard Zeiler.

“When it was just HBO, [US] domestic worked very independently from international. So you had programming teams making their own decisions and really as business units, they were totally separately.

“Now you have – with Discovery – a much larger operation. What we are trying to do from a programming point of view is to work with Gerhard’s team and to think about programming globally.

“The left hand [now] knows what the right hand is doing, so it will be more coordinated. We’ll be making better decisions about where to invest and about how much to invest.”

Zeiler, who like Bloys reports into WBD chief Zaslav, adds that the programme spend is being “figured out” but says non-US spend remains considerable.

“I have a big domestic investment pot, Gerhard has a fairly sizeable international investment [pot] too, and it is about trying to work it out by saying, “OK, we are putting all this money into programming, where is it best to put our money. Where are we betting? And now, we are doing that together.”

There is little detail on just where spending will land and Bloys swerves providing any detail on just how big the international pot is. “Let me give you Gerhard’s number,” he jokes.

But there are suggestions that relatively lower cost international fare will retain its place on the slate and Bloys points to “successful co-productions” in the UK with the BBC, Sky and Channel 4.

“From a creative point of view, we’ve had very good relationships with most of the UK broadcasters, but in terms of sharing streaming windows, that is a very different conversation,” he says as discussion turns to rights and flexiblity.

My Brilliant Friend was co-produced by HBO and Italian pubcaster Rai

Shows in the guise of My Brilliant Friend, co-produced with Rai in Italy, could provide a framework for the future though, it seems. “I love My Brilliant Friend, it’s great, I’m very proud of it and as a co-production it is economically feasible for us, so I’m not worried it isn’t a blockbuster [in the US].

My Brilliant Friend can exist because it is beautiful, well produced, it has great reviews and because it is a co-production it doesn’t cost us comparatively as much as other shows. You always have to make that trade off.

“I look at the slate at HBO and HBO Max as one big thing. And I don’t just want a slate of House Of Dragons and Last Of Us, I don’t want just tentpoles – it’s not as interesting as a slate that contains My Brilliant Friend, Barry, I May Destroy You. You want that range.

“And shows don’t have to just be audience plays, they can be good for the HBO brand. They can be good for Awards, they can get great reviews and those things matter – you just have to balance them.”

The potential of a US writers strike could also throw up more opportunities internationally, but Bloys weaves around the subject. “I don’t like to predict [if it will happen] because I have no idea,” he says matter of fact. “It will not be fun or easy for anybody, all you can do is prepare, have as many scripts as possible and get things into production.” In the meantime, Bloys has the launch of WBD’s new combined streamer to worry about. That, and just how to navigate the ongoing turmoil around streaming. “It feels like we are right in the middle of it – the industry is a bit in the dark and we are all trying different approaches.”

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