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Instant Analysis: Time Warner's Plan for Bill Simmons, Personality-Driven Content Take Shape

By Daniel B. Kline - Apr 14, 2016 at 9:00AM

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The network is embracing working with smart, creative people and the first results of that are starting to emerge.

Time Warner's (TWX) HBO has been stockpiling talent without being all that clear about what it intends to do with it.

The company took a straightforward approach when it lured John Oliver away from Comedy Central. He was given a traditional weekly show that has flourished on the pay-cable network.

But a deal with Oliver's former boss, Jon Stewart, has been less clear. The former Daily Show host joined HBO on a four-year deal, ostensibly to create and star in short-form content that will be featured on its streaming platform. The agreement also includes first-look rights for any film or TV projects the comedian creates.

Bill Simmons, who somewhat acrimoniously left Walt Disney's (DIS -0.70%) ESPN last year, has a deal that's somewhat a hybrid of the Steward and Oliver agreements. The former Grantland boss will get a talk show on HBO, but he will also create, produce, and maybe star in other things for the pay service.

Both the Stewart and the Simmons deals show that HBO values talent, but the first project from Simmons beyond his talk show makes it clear the network also understands the market has changed.

What is happening?
Simmons will produce a Game of Thrones wrap-up show hosted by Grantland alums Andy Greenwald and Chris Ryan for HBO's streaming platform. The show, After the Thrones, premiers April 24, and will feature the hosts "offering absurd and not-so-absurd theories about future episodes," Deadline reported.

This show, which grew out of work Greenwald and Ryan did at Grantland, shows that HBO sees the value of letting creative people like Simmons do their thing. It also creates even closer ties between Simmons new website, The Ringer, and his new television home. That could prove valuable because even though Time Warner does not appear to have a stake in the upcoming website, its audience would be a pool of potential subscribers.

Simmons has hired a lot of Grantland alumni for The Ringer.

If Simmons can give The Ringer staffers strong exposure through HBO and the cable network can tap his farm team, then it may have a strong bench of performers, much like happened with The Daily Show under Stewart.

It's a new world
While Disney/ESPN has a reputation for not wanting talent to achieve too much stardom, HBO/Time Warner seem comfortable letting the stars shine. The evolving pay service also seems willing to embrace the idea that content goes well beyond just its biggest shows. It clearly seems to understand that building a thriving content ecosystem led by megatalents like Simmons and Stewart can only lead to good things.

That was true at ESPN for Simmons, where Grantland launched a number of rising stars in the sports and pop culture media worlds. It was even more true for Stewart, who nurtured Stephen Colbert, Steve Carrell, Oliver, Samantha Bee, Jason Jones, and countless others to fame.

HBO has lined up its stars and the Game of Thrones aftershow is the first little piece of that paying off. Going forward it should just be the tip of the iceberg.

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