One of many large questions surrounding AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner has been about how the telecom big will deal with its new flagship leisure manufacturers. Earlier this week, a narrative from The New York Instances raised some considerations concerning the future prospects of HBO. The story recounted a June 19th city corridor with new Warner Media chief government John Stankey, HBO CEO Richard Plepler, and 150 HBO staff, throughout which Stankey made it clear that he anticipated HBO to ramp up content material manufacturing and diversify its choices. The account painted a grim image for the community, which has excelled, due to its extremely discerning style and prestige-level programming. Making issues as awkward as potential, Stankey predicted that the approaching yr could be so arduous that it will really feel “like childbirth” for HBO staff.
The following day, The Verge sister website Recode printed a extra nuanced account of the assembly, which softened some pointed feedback Stankey appeared to have made about HBO’s profitability. The prolonged transcripts make it clear that AT&T’s big-picture ambition is to make use of HBO, and its authentic programming workforce, as a part of a content material technique that may allow its future distribution plans. “A broad theme that I imagine is happening within the trade is there aren’t going to be a limiteless variety of platforms which have direct-to-consumer relationships,” Stankey stated, in accordance with Recode. “Now, is it going to be eight, six, or 4? I don’t know, but when it’s 4 we must be one of many 4. If it’s six, we must be one of many six.”
From HBO’s perspective, that’s definitely a extra encouraging take than what the Instances reported, and between each accounts, it’s clear that AT&T sees the community as an vital a part of its enterprise shifting ahead. However a platform technique for a telecom firm is a vastly totally different animal than a content material technique for a media firm. And whereas AT&T’s ambitions could also be sound, its strategy could however strip HBO of the very issues which have allowed it to flourish.
Traditionally, there’s at all times been a little bit of a disconnect between know-how firms and leisure firms. Name it the distinction between Silicon Valley and Hollywood. Know-how firms are inclined to suppose that the issues that work greatest of their world will translate in every single place, which is why we find yourself with issues like Amazon’s preliminary makes an attempt at crowdsourcing TV exhibits. (Spoiler: it didn’t work out.) However the enterprise of devices and platforms is basically totally different than the enterprise of storytelling and content material. That’s why each tech firm with authentic programming ambitions has finally simply arrange store in Los Angeles like another studio.
HBO has constructed its model round rigorously curated status TV
It’s partially a recognition of how the sausage is definitely made, however one other key motivator is that it’s one of the best ways to construct and keep relationships with expertise: the writers, administrators, producers, and actors that truly make the exhibits and films everybody’s excited by watching. Little is extra alluring than each status and inventive freedom, and that’s an space the place HBO has carved out its personal distinctive area of interest. Again within the 1990s, applications like The Larry Sanders Present didn’t earn network-level scores, however they earned a level of essential acclaim that wasn’t actually potential with most broadcast community exhibits. Issues actually blew open in 1999 with the debut of David Chase’s The Sopranos, a present that’s typically credited with spawning the status drama altogether. Since then, the community has constructed its model round that very same fashion of elevated programming, whether or not it’s Six Toes Beneath, The Wire, Recreation of Thrones, True Detective, or Westworld.
The community permits its creators to swing large, which makes it an interesting place for them to work. And audiences have grown accustomed to a excessive degree of craft and polish, which makes them prone to stick round even when their favourite present finishes a season. Recreation of Thrones is over? Don’t fear; Westworld is simply across the nook. That’s wrapped up? Look out: right here comes Sharp Objects.
The trick works largely as a result of HBO has been extremely centered. It retains its originals and dramas largely to Sunday nights, and when it ventures into different areas, it does so selectively (like Actual Time with Invoice Maher on Fridays or its cope with Vice). The remainder of the programming schedule is made up of licensed movies and legacy content material, harkening again to the channel’s origins, and that restricted quantity of authentic content material is what permits HBO’s exhibits to be so refined. “Extra will not be higher,” Plepler stated earlier this yr in a Wall Road Journal piece. “Solely higher is best.”
That philosophy is the alternative of what Stankey proposed within the June city corridor. (Although it seems that Plepler now appears to agree with him.) Calling again to his earlier remark, the CEO admitted, “I’ve switched that, now that you just’re right here, to ‘extra isn’t higher, solely higher is best — however we want much more to be even higher.’”
In actuality, it’s not that simple. It’s very a lot a know-how firm’s mindset to suppose that HBO’s authentic content material can merely be handled like a chunk of infrastructure: throw more cash on the drawback, order extra exhibits, and get the very same high quality of output, simply multiplied by an element of x. However shortage is a part of what offers HBO exhibits their appeal; cautious curation is what has created the belief it has with its subscribers. And exclusivity and a spotlight is a part of what makes the community interesting to creators. That’s one thing Plepler has beforehand harassed when combating again towards the inflow of authentic programming by Amazon, Netflix, and others. And whereas AT&T could not need to flip HBO into the churn-a-minute content material mill that Netflix has turn out to be, the streaming service is however a helpful comparability level when how audiences and creators can react negatively to an overabundance of content material.
When Netflix first obtained critical about its authentic programming ambitions, it began with Home of Playing cards, ordering two seasons of the collection with out even seeing a pilot. On the time, the strategy was daring and creator-friendly, opening an thrilling new avenue for showrunners who have been trying to arrange their tasks. That continued because the service grew extra bold. Every of its exhibits acquired recent rounds of consideration from the viewing public as a result of sheer novelty that Netflix exhibits — which, on the time, nonetheless appeared extra akin to internet collection somewhat than completed tv — have been truly good.
However fast-forward to in the present day, and new Netflix exhibits are something however particular. The service plans to spend $eight billion this yr on authentic content material, hoping to make half of its total catalog authentic applications and films over the approaching years. Fifteen totally different authentic movies and TV exhibits are rolling out in July alone, and August doesn’t look a lot lighter. In some ways, authentic programming has turn out to be a commodity at Netflix. And whereas that does imply extra artistic works are being produced than they might be in any other case, it additionally makes it that a lot more durable for any single program to interrupt out and enter the zeitgeist. Couple that with the truth that Netflix tends to focus its promoting on exhibits which are already recognized portions, like Stranger Issues or its Marvel collection, and what outcomes is a scenario the place particular person creators can begin to really feel that their exhibits aren’t being given the eye they deserve and are getting misplaced within the relentless content material deluge.
If HBO doesn’t really feel distinctive and particular to creators, it loses the excessive floor altogether
That’s the crux of the complete difficulty: expertise actually is the whole lot. In any case, with out nice writers, administrators, and actors, there isn’t a nice tv to observe. Algorithms may help observe viewing habits and decide what an viewers is drawn to, and so they can serve up a present you’ll like based mostly on what you’ve watched earlier than. However truly making a present? That’s a gaggle effort — a really human one.
“If there have been a scarcity at our door of expertise eager to work right here, I might be involved,” Plepler stated in the course of the city corridor. “However there’s a surfeit of expertise on the door that desires to work right here.” That’s true, nevertheless it’s solely true due to the way in which HBO at the moment operates. Remodel it right into a enterprise that’s knocking out extra exhibits throughout extra genres all within the title of feeding the hungry company content material gods, and it runs the danger of dropping that top floor.
In a GQ profile in 2013, Netflix chief content material officer Ted Sarandos summed up the corporate’s ambitions elegantly: “The purpose is to turn out to be HBO sooner than HBO can turn out to be us.” Within the years since, one thing totally different has truly occurred. Netflix has turn out to be a creator of some wonderful exhibits, however the sheer quantity it produces has saved it from having fun with the identical form of pedigree its rival enjoys. HBO, then again, has improved its streaming capabilities and providers, nevertheless it has solely gingerly expanded its content material manufacturing, permitting it to take care of its deluxe sheen. It’s comprehensible why AT&T sees that as an untapped alternative. There’s the streaming platform play, however within the city corridor, Stankey additionally talked about knowledge assortment and promoting — all of the issues that you’d anticipate a telecommunications firm to consider in the case of the alternatives that on-line viewing supplies. What appeared to be lacking, by his personal admission, was consciousness of how and why good tv will get made within the first place.
“A community doesn’t get inbuilt a day,” Stankey stated when answering a query about AT&T’s curiosity in long-term investments. “You suppose it takes a very long time to jot down a script, movie it, edit it, distribute it, convey it out? It takes even longer to construct a wi-fi community.”
If solely HBO was within the wi-fi community enterprise.