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HBO chief Richard Plepler to step down in highest-profile exit since AT&T bought Time Warner

The cable executive championed shows such as “Game Of Thrones” and “True Blood,” and political coverage from news startups Axios and Vice News.
Image: \"The Price Of Everything\" New York Premiere
Chairman of HBO Richard Plepler attends 'The Price of Everything' New York Premiere at Museum of Modern Art on Oct. 18, 2018 in New York.Daniel Zuchnik / Getty Images file

Richard Plepler announced on Thursday that he is stepping down as the chief executive of HBO, becoming the highest-profile executive to leave the pay-cable service since AT&T bought HBO's parent company, Time Warner, in 2016.

The news of Plepler's planned departure comes just two days after the acquisition gained final clearance from the U.S. government. A federal appeals court rejected an attempt by the Trump administration to block the deal.

"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," Plepler said in an email to HBO colleagues on Thursday.

Turner Broadcasting's chief, David Levy, is also planning to leave the company, according to two sources familiar with the situation who were not authorized to speak publicly. Levy is preparing to release a statement on Friday, the sources said.

Plepler championed shows such as “Game of Thrones” and “True Blood,” as well as political coverage from news startups Axios and Vice News. Plepler had given AT&T months to plan for his exit, according to a source familiar with the situation who was not authorized to speak publicly.

The announcement that he is leaving comes days after sources told NBC News that AT&T had been in talks with former NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt about a role that could include oversight of HBO and could rank just below John Stankey, the WarnerMedia chief executive. AT&T renamed Time Warner as WarnerMedia after the acquisition.

Stankey applauded Plepler's run at HBO, which included dozens of Emmy wins.

“Richard is one of the most successful executives in our industry and I have been fortunate to have his support over the last months," Stankey said. "His vision, energy and passion helped to elevate HBO’s brand to what it has become today. Richard’s impact to our business and on the passionate viewers of HBO’s enduring programming will continue to be felt for years.”

Levy’s exit is in some ways more surprising than that of Plepler given his relationships with Madison Avenue and his deep contacts in professional and college sports. AT&T has said that digital ad targeting was one of the main reasons for its acquisition of Time Warner. The company has suggested it could charge much more for ads that could combine TV viewing with user data, though Turner’s ad revenue declined 6 percent in the fourth quarter of 2018.