HBO chief Richard Plepler has never had the word “programming” in his job title. Even so, there is no question his impact has been felt on the pay cable network’s groundbreaking content for more than two decades.
His name has even worked its way into scripts. The physician who treated Tony Soprano on The Sopranos? Dr. Lior Plepler. The shopping cart artwork prized by Larry David’s character in last summer’s film Clear History? “Plepler” again.
The executive was named HBO’s CEO in January, succeeding the retiring Bill Nelson, whom he counts as a mentor. He now oversees HBO and Cinemax, with a combined 114 million subscribers and branded networks in 60 countries. HBO earned 108 Primetime Emmy nominations this year, more than double that of its closest competitor, and took home 27 awards.
Though he joined HBO in 1992 to head corporate communications, from that role Plepler had some influence on programming decisions. In 2004, for instance, convinced that The Wire was making a contribution to the national conversation, he argued passionately to renew the drama—not just once, but twice.
“We were effectively cancelled—we ran through the actors’ contracts, we didn’t renew; [then-CEO] Chris [Albrecht] was very dubious about going beyond season three,” says The Wire creator David Simon, who went on to cocreate Treme for the network. “What I didn’t know was, Richard was in Chris’ ear, insisting. Later on I heard he was saying stuff like, ‘We’re no longer HBO if we don’t renew this show.’ He’s very interested in ‘What are we trying to say, and why are we trying to say it?’”
The well-dressed, perpetually tanned Plepler has always been intrigued by culture’s role in shaping people’s worldviews. He grew up in Connecticut in a very politically engaged family; his father was a trial lawyer involved in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, and dinner conversations revolved around the issues of the day. It was HBO’s place in the zeitgeist that initially attracted Plepler away from politics to the burgeoning entertainment company.
“[Former HBO CEO] Michael [Fuchs] really presented me with an opportunity that was just too exciting to say no to, given what I correctly believed was the sensibility of this place, which is, you could do great entertainment but you could also do things that had cultural impact,” Plepler says.
Plepler translated his background in Washington, where he served on the staff of Sen. Chris Dodd (1981-84) and started his own communications firm, to campaign for HBO’s relevance in the popular culture as it sought to pick up subscribers when free broadcast TV was dominant. He made an early impression with his inquisitive and thoughtful approach.
“I could tell by the questions he asked that he was intent on finding out how this place worked,” says Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes, whom Plepler counts as his biggest mentor. “Always from the start, I think he’s found a home; he’s found a place where he understood this has got everything.”
Rewarding Plepler’s rise through corporate affairs, Nelson elevated him to copresident in 2007, a crossroads year for the network. Plepler joined Eric Kessler and Harold Akselrad in leading HBO in the wake of Albrecht’s high-profile dismissal. He helped see HBO through its Sopranos/Sex and the City high and a fallow period in the mid 2000s of misses like Deadwood and Rome, to its current stable of hits including Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire.
For all his success in television, he remains curious about the culture at large (he counts membership in the Council on Foreign Relations as one of his many credits). A self-described family man to his wife, Laura, and their 10-year-old daughter, Eden, he is also known for hosting dinner parties at their Manhattan home with guests from the fields of journalism, entertainment and politics. His friends and colleagues in the entertainment business say if they call him up, they’re more likely to discuss politics or current affairs than Hollywood.
He has brought that sensibility to his work, continuing HBO’s tradition of programming with a point of view and helping make the network the place in town to pitch political projects like Game Change and Too Big to Fail; he recently convinced Martin Scorsese to direct a documentary on Bill Clinton.
“Even though it precedes him, he in a way personifies the best in our programming, which is respect for points of view well-stated,” says Michael Lombardo, president of HBO programming.
Colleagues describe Plepler as a good listener, without cynicism; someone who talks not just to series creators, but also their writers and directors, at social functions and who has an unbridled enthusiasm for HBO’s programming that makes everyone from Scorsese to David Milch, J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof want to work with the network.
“It’s just such a great feeling to know that you’re working for a person who understands and appreciates what you do and is genuinely a fan of what you do,” says Terence Winter, creator of Boardwalk Empire and executive producer on The Sopranos.
Seemingly as comfortable at the Emmy Awards as he is on the Senate floor, Plepler’s greatest skill as the face of HBO may be his ability to take programming as disparate as Girls, Game of Thrones and historical documentaries and knit it into a coherent brand.
As Dodd, now chairman and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, puts it, “Richard, in addition to producing a good product that makes money, he creates a place for those elements to come together and feel a level of comfort that not everyone can achieve—and most don’t—in this business.”