'This next year ... will feel like childbirth': HBO's new corporate overlord warns employees to expect a tough year

  • Warner Media CEO John Stankey told HBO employees to anticipate a tough year to come at the company.
  • "You will work very hard, and this next year will — my wife hates it when I say this — feel like childbirth," he said to 150 HBO employees at a recent town hall.
  • Stankey said that HBO needs to increase its subscriber base and get bigger and broader to compete.

Employees at HBO should prepare themselves for a busy, and potentially painful, year ahead.

That was the message that Warner Media CEO John Stankey gave to 150 HBO employees at a recent company town hall, according to a recording that the New York Times obtained.

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President and CEO of AT&T Operations John Stankey listens to a question from a Reuters reporter during a Reuters Global Technology Summit in New York May 14, 2010. REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 28: CEO of AT&T Entertainment Group John Stankey speaks onstage during AT&T's celebration of the Launch of DIRECTV NOW at Venue 57 on November 28, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images for DirecTV)
John Stankey, senior executive vice president of AT&T Inc. merger integration planning, arrives to federal court in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, April 30, 2018. Time Warner Inc.�gave Chief Executive Officer�Jeff Bewkes a 50 percent pay increase to $49 million, with most of the raise tied to its pending merger with�AT&T Inc. The Justice Department has delayed the acquisition over concerns it will raise prices for pay-TV subscribers -- an assertion AT&T has disputed. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 28: CEO, AT&T Entertainment Group AT&T John Stankey speaks at the MediaLink Presents: MASS-terclass: The New Age of Mass Personalization panel on the Times Center Stage during 2016 Advertising Week New York on September 28, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images for Advertising Week New York)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 18: CEO of AT&T DirecTV Studio John Stankey (L) and Rich Eisen of The Rich Eisen Show attend the grand opening of the AT&T Forum for Technology, Entertainment & Policy on January 18, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Larry French/Getty Images for AT&T)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 18: John Stankey (L) and Craig Trafelet of AT&T attend the grand opening of the AT&T Forum for Technology, Entertainment & Policy on January 18, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Larry French/Getty Images for AT&T)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 28: CEO, AT&T Entertainment Group AT&T John Stankey speaks at the MediaLink Presents: MASS-terclass: The New Age of Mass Personalization panel on the Times Center Stage during 2016 Advertising Week New York on September 28, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images for Advertising Week New York)
John Stankey, president and chief executive officer of AT&T Business Solutions, speaks at the CTIA Enterprise & Applications conference in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Friday, Oct. 8, 2010. ?Business is the next frontier for the wireless industry,? Stankey said. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 28: Chairman & CEO MediaLink Michael Kassan and CEO, AT&T Entertainment Group AT&T John Stankey speak at the MediaLink Presents: MASS-terclass: The New Age of Mass Personalization panel on the Times Center Stage during 2016 Advertising Week New York on September 28, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images for Advertising Week New York)
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"It's going to be a tough year," Stankey said. "It's going to be a lot of work to alter and change direction a little bit."

Using the phrase "dog year" to describe the next 12 months and telling employees "you're going to be working a little bit harder," Stankey ratcheted up the pain level that HBO employees should expect.

"You will work very hard, and this next year will — my wife hates it when I say this — feel like childbirth," Stankey said. "You’ll look back on it and be very fond of it, but it’s not going to feel great while you’re in the middle of it."

Stankey's town hall statements seemed different in tone to previous comments from AT&T executives. 

"At the end of the day, you're acquiring a business that’s been very successful," AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said at the 2018 Code Conference in May. "It's been run very independently. HBO is run independently from Warner Bros., which is run independently from Turner, and it’s been a very good model."

HBO CEO Richard Plepler, who hosted the town hall with Stankey, previously stressed the importance of AT&T staying out HBOs process.

"You have to have a Chinese wall between the creative process and everything else," Plepler told The Times in 2016 after the deal was announced.

While Stankey didn't get overly specific about future strategy at the HBO town hall, he said HBO will need to transform, offering bigger and broader content to boost engagement.

"I want more hours of engagement," he said. "Why are more hours of engagement important? Because you get more data and information about a customer that then allows you to do things like monetize through alternate models of advertising as well as subscriptions, which I think is very important to play in tomorrow's world."

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