HBO v Netflix: an epic struggle unfolds
Just as cable channels disrupted the networks in the early 1980s, so the internet is threatening cable’s throne
- guardian.co.uk, Sunday 10 June 2012 15.29 EDT
In a media world of collapsing revenues and a market where content is not so much king as impoverished dethroned exile, having consumers start a campaign to give you more money is rather unusual. In the US last week, cable channel HBO found itself at the centre of such a campaign.
Jake Caputo, a fan of Game of Thrones and True Blood, expressed his frustration at HBO’s policy of “bundling” subscriptions for its cable channel and HBOGO on-demand service, by starting his own website takemymoneyhbo.com. In its first days, the site was receiving 130,000 visits a day from the curious, and those who registered how much they would be prepared to pay for a standalone HBOGO monthly subscription.
HBO is enjoying a renaissance with its epic fantasy drama Game of Thrones, adult vampire soap True Blood and the excellent Girls; but the ability of audiences to choose what to watch where has meant a migration of viewing from expensive and quasi-monopolistic cable TV to streamed services such as Netflix and Hulu.
The epic struggle unfolding between the packaged services and the freedoms of broadband web-streaming is only just beginning and takemymoneyhbo.com is a manifestation of how the on-demand population is likely to respond. Earlier in the year US media analysts noted that cable TV viewing figures were on the slide by almost 10% over the course of a year, yet revenues to cable companies continue to grow.
Therein lies the dilemma for cable and HBO – the reason the revenues are rising, say analysts, is because of the increased uptake in broadband packages. People are paying for increased broadband and TV is not the main driver but the subsidiary attraction of the high-speed network into the home. And what are people doing with all that broadband? Well, watching movies and TV series. Just over the web rather than through a cable service.
Research published last week by IHS reported that Netflix, the enfant terrible of subscription video on demand, went from holding 1% of the market to 44%, overtaking Apple’s iTunes store as the largest VOD service by share. Netflix’s growth in streaming both movies and TV series is impressive, although some of the content cost obligations, which run into billions of dollars, are worrying its investors. But the nitty-gritty financials aside, the market patterns show very clearly where consumer demand is moving – wanting to ditch expensive TV channel packages for nimbler and much cheaper on-demand services.
For the HBOs of this world the tricky calculation is when to break with the cable companies which have created and sustained their existence. The next major disruption in the media market is clearly identified as likely to be in television, both in devices (Google and Apple TV are both marginal products for now, but few think this will remain the case) and in how programmes are distributed and consumed.
The television business is different from newspapers, in that it relies often on “high value reusable content”, but similar to the music business. It has had three decades to get used to the idea that disruption is non-discriminatory, yet has always had the aura that it is not under quite the same disruptive threat because the barriers to entry into the market are traditionally so much higher.
The US cable industry is famously aggressive in preserving market tenure. But it has crucial decisions to make about its next moves. Just as cable disrupted the terrestrial TV networks in the early 1980s, so the internet is now disrupting the cable business and its ability to attract and hold audiences.
For now HBO bosses are resisting the offer of consumer money to preserve its relationship with the cable carriers. But they are masters of narrative and will already know that, from the cable TV perspective, this particular story will not end happily.