HBO and Turner chiefs depart amid AT&T shake-up of WarnerMedia

AT&T has taken its first big steps in an overhaul of its newly acquired media empire, sparking the exit of two top WarnerMedia executives: Richard Plepler, the powerful chief executive of HBO, and David Levy, head of Turner Broadcasting. 

AT&T has spent the past few months brainstorming its plans for the rebranded Time Warner business, while awaiting a court decision to get a final stamp of approval for its blockbuster $80bn takeover.

The company plans to unveil its restructuring plans in the coming days, according to people familiar with the matter, after Tuesday’s approval of the deal by a US federal appeals court. 

Rumours surfaced this week that HBO would be folded into a single business unit with other networks including TBS, TNT and Cartoon Network — a notion that did not sit well with Mr Plepler, who has enjoyed a great degree of freedom under previous ownership.

Mr Plepler felt he would not be able to manage HBO with the same autonomy under AT&T, which is why he is leaving, according to people close to the situation. Kevin Tsujihara, head of the Warner Bros film studio, is expected to stay in place.

Citing “an inflection point in the life of this wonderful company”, the 60-year-old Mr Plepler, who has worked for HBO for almost three decades, announced his resignation late on Thursday in an email to staff.

“Hard as it is to think about leaving the company I love, and the people I love in it, it is the right time for me to do so,” he said.

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The appeals court ruling handed AT&T victory against the Trump administration’s effort to block the Time Warner takeover. It clears the way for the two companies to begin integrating Time Warner’s content business, which includes HBO, CNN and the Warner Bros film studio, with AT&T’s distribution network.

Mr Plepler, who has been chief executive for six years, has been credited with guiding HBO through a time of tumult in the media business. While cable television has been under pressure from a sea change in viewing habits and the incursion of Netflix and Amazon, HBO has dominated television awards and continued to attract subscribers, churning out hits such as Game of Thrones, Veep and Big Little Lies. During Mr Plepler’s tenure as chief executive, HBO won 165 Emmy awards.

Jeff Bewkes stepped down as Time Warner’s chief executive last June. He was replaced by John Stankey, an AT&T veteran who is chief executive of the rebranded WarnerMedia unit. Mr Stankey warned HBO executives last summer that it would be a “tough year” ahead, likening the transition to “childbirth”.

The fate of HBO, Time Warner’s crown jewel, has been a central concern about the combination of the Texas-based phone company with a Hollywood giant. WarnerMedia is looking to launch a streaming service to rival Netflix this year, and has touted HBO as central to this product. 

“Richard is one of the most successful executives in our industry and I have been fortunate to have his support over the last months,” said Mr Stankey. “Richard’s impact to our business and on the passionate viewers of HBO’s enduring programming will continue to be felt for years.”

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