Bad economy isn’t hurting HBO, execs say

The economy is pounding entertainment companies left and right, but Time Warner Inc.'s pay cable channel HBO so far has been immune to the turmoil, its top executives said Thursday.

Speaking at the Television Critics Assn. press tour in Pasadena, HBO Co-President Richard Plepler said the company’s strong DVD sales, along with little evidence of subscribers’ dropping the service to save a few bucks, had the network feeling “cautiously optimistic” that it could weather the storm.

HBO has about 30 million subscribers, up slightly from a year ago. It is also expanding its online presence with HBO Go, its re-branded broadband offering. The service, which is being tested in 5,000 Comcast homes, will offer 650 hours of HBO content. Plepler said HBO was talking with other distributors about carrying the broadband service. To access programming online, consumers will have to prove that they already are HBO subscribers.

Although the dollars are still coming in, HBO’s other co-president, Michael Lombardo, said the channel was not looking to increase its programming budgets in the near future. He noted that the new comedy “Hung” would be back for a second season next summer, along with the series “True Blood” and “Entourage.”


HBO is back on a roll creatively, thanks in particular to “True Blood.” The network is miffed that the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, which oversees the Emmy Awards, is considering moving some categories such as writing for best drama and awards for TV movies and miniseries out of the live Emmy broadcast. Those are categories HBO has dominated in recent years. Lombardo said he was disappointed by that idea, and Plepler called it peculiar. (For more on the Emmy-HBO flap, see the report in Calendar.)

On the creative front, one of the more anticipated projects previewed to critics is a documentary about President Obama that was produced by actor Edward Norton, who has been active in Democratic politics and affordable-housing issues.

Norton said the president’s declining poll numbers should not dampen interest in “By the People: The Election of Barack Obama.”

“Whatever President Obama goes through, whatever struggles and ebbs and flows and success,” he said, “I don’t think anything will diminish the achievement of his election. . . . It was a singular moment in American history.”


“By the People,” directed by Amy Rice and Alicia Sams, offers a behind-the-scenes look at Obama and his campaign, from his victory in the Iowa primary through election day in November. The original concept was to make a more general film about the candidate, rather than a campaign diary.

“He represented a generational shift in national politics,” Norton said. “There was no conversation or suggestion of ‘We’d like to follow your run for the presidency.’ ”

But as more footage was shot, the backstage angle became more important. Despite Norton’s celebrity and connections, however, the filmmakers said it was sometimes hard to get access to Obama and his inner circle. Norton said that two top Obama advisors, David Axelrod and David Plouffe, were particularly resistant at first, but that Rice “wore them down.”

After a while, Norton said, staffers paid no attention to the film crew. “That’s when you’re in, when people sort of forget about you,” he said.