HBO Go or No Go?

HBO’s announcement about launching a streaming only version of their popular service has been received with great joy and serious apprehension depending on which side of the fence you sit. For many years now consumers, specifically people who have cut the cable cord (cord cutters) have been clamoring for services like HBO and ESPN to go rogue. Cord cutters have said that they are willing to pay a monthly fee for these premium services if they were stand-alone and not part of a cable bundle; one that includes hundreds of channels nobody wants to watch. So for cord cutters and consumers like me, who currently live in both worlds, this is a big win and giant step in the right direction towards a la carte programming.

However, on the other side of the fence sit the cable and broadband companies who have balked at HBO’s move because it will disrupt their lucrative and outdated business models and threaten the uncomfortable status quo. Incidentally, the business model the cable companies are trying to protect is akin to going to a restaurant and being told that in order to eat your favourite desert you will have to order, and pay for, all the deserts on the menu – I doubt you would be eating there again! Comcast’s CEO recently publicly rebuked the HBO announcement; “Mr. Burke warned that, whatever HBO’s intentions, ‘it’s going to be a challenge for them to not cannibalize what is already a really, really good business’.” (Source: Wall Street Journal). It is worth noting that if Comcast’s proposed merger with Time Warner Cable gets approved by regulators, they would control 70% of the broadband market; and interestingly HBO will need to rely on broadband providers like them for the high speeds and massive bandwidths they will need for this gamble to succeed.

The reality is that when most established and entrenched companies make proclamations about changing their business model or radically disrupting the status quo, it is often a knee-jerk reaction to competitive pressures and therefore rarely ever thought through. Take for example CBS’s announcement, on the heels of HBO’s, about launching their own streaming service for $5.99 per month. CBS like other broadcast networks is free-to-air. This means that unlike cable channels all you need is to buy is an over-the-air-antenna and plug it into your TV and you can watch all the networks, as well as numerous local channels and public broadcasting stations like PBS; all in HD and all for free (Source: Lifehacker).

CBS also makes a lot of money by negotiating hefty “re-transmission” fees from cable providers, which form part of our monthly monster cable bills. So the first question is why would the cable companies continue to pay these hefty fees when CBS is making the same content available through other means? Additionally, from a customer standpoint, live sports like NFL games are not included in the streaming service. Let’s face it, CBS hardly has a reputation for stellar and premium content that people are willing to pay extra for; not sure many people are doing high fives about the fact that “Two Broke Girls” will be available to watch via streaming. Also, if I want to watch the first six seasons of the Good Wife, I can do this for free as an Amazon Prime member, or see them on HuluPlus under my current subscription (where I can watch many other shows), or simply download 2 seasons at a time from iTunes for roughly $65-$70; which is still cheaper than paying for one year of CBS’s ‘All Access’ streaming service  — you do the math.

HBO on the other hand is not like a CBS (other than the misfortune of having Time Warner as it’s parent company). It has always been an entrepreneurial company with innovation as part of its core DNA. It single-handedly changed the television industry; lifting the quality of content and thus saving us all from a TV-hell filled with nothing but the Kardashians. However, the quality of content that forged HBO’s brand reputation also forced the rest of the industry to raise its game, and many have followed-suit by creating their own original and award winning programming. AMC has had huge ratings and critical success with “Mad Men”, “Breaking Bad” and “Walking Dead,” while Showtime has given us “Dexter”, “Nurse Jackie” and “Weeds”. Even Netflix has gotten into the content game with “House of Card” and is now stepping fearlessly into the feature film business with a recent four movie deal with Adam Sandler (Read my take here: “Netflix, Data, Drunkard’s and Adam Sandler”).

So unlike CBS, I believe HBO is doing this for the right reasons and more likely to think it through and get it right, now that they have woken up to and accepted the new consumer realities. This I suspect also led to their decision to go ahead and piss on their powerful cable partners whom they did not care to inform ahead of making their announcement.

HBO knows that they can no longer distinguish themselves on quality of content alone. As a result they would be competing (with the likes of Netflix) with one hand tied behind their back as long they are relegated to being stuck as part of the traditional cable bundle.

Second, they have read and accepted the tea leaves on the changing pattern of television consumption. Online video has been growing for some years but the acceleration has been marked in the last year. An Adobe study shows that for the first time online video viewing habits are going mainstream and no longer relegated to tech savvy early adopters and cord cutters; “Researchers tracked 165 online video views and 1.53 billion logins over a year, and they found that total TV viewing over the internet grew by 388 percent in mid-2014 compared to the same time a year earlier — a near-quintupling.” (Source: Wired Magazine). This means that even people who have regular cable subscriptions are choosing to watch more of their TV and movies online via internet connected devices.

Most importantly, HBO is clearly paying attention to their customers changing viewing habits that have decimated the old Nielsen TV rating system. People no longer want to watch shows based on a Fixed Point Chart (industry jargon for the TV schedule published by a channel). Instead, they prefer to watch it a few days later or simply binge watch an entire show or season during a weekend or long haul flight.

While I do not have a crystal ball and cannot predict the success of HBO’s standalone service, I do know a couple of things. It is certain that they, like Netflix, will face tremendous opposition and hurdles from movie studios, cable operators and broadband providers; all interested in preserving their lucrative status quo. However, HBO will also have the wind in their sales based on the fact that customers are demanding a breakdown of the straight-jacketed cable model and getting more used to consuming content in an a la carte, anytime, anywhere, pay as you watch model.

My money is always on companies that try to deliver on their customers’ needs and focus on making life easier for them, rather than try to force customers down a path driven by the company’s myopic goals and bottom-line greed.

Netflix, Data, Drunkard’s and Adam Sandler

There has been much discussion about Netflix’ recent announcement signing Adam Sandler for an exclusive four movie deal to be premiered on Netflix. It has also generated talk of the beginning of the end of the traditional Hollywood studio model as well as praise for Netflix use of data to make a content investment decision; albeit, this particular decision has left many people scratching their heads.

Let’s start with the fact that it has been a while since Mr. Sandler made a commercially successful or comedically substantive film; while Grown Ups fared better, he did not carry that movie. If you ask people to name their favourite Adam Sandler movie, most say Wedding Singer and movie buffs will add Punch-Drunk Love. His last few films, ‘That’s My Boy’ and ‘Blended’ have been critically panned and box office duds. In fact, the last movie, Blended, might have had a longer advertising campaign preceding the release, than the actual run it had in theaters!

On the lack of critical and commercial success, Netflix’s content chief has a data counterpoint: “Very uniquely, he stands out for his global appeal to Netflix subscribers. Even movies that were soft in the U.S. [theatrically] outperformed dramatically on Netflix in the U.S. and around the world.” (Source: Hollywood Reporter).

Don’t get me wrong, I love data and am a big advocate for using it to make better and more informed business decisions. However, I am also against over-reliance on data and using it without the benefit of judgement to accompany the decision-making process. My thinking is best explained by David Ogilvy who once exclaimed about the ad industry’s over-reliance on research – “I notice increasing reluctance on the part of marketing executives to use judgment; they are coming to rely too much on research, and they use it as a drunkard uses a lamp post for support, rather than for illumination.”

If one were to take a closer look at Netflix catalogue you will find that of the twelve highest rated comedy films, currently available in USA (as of October 2014); 2 are foreign (The Intoucahbles and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara), 8 were made between 1953 and 1987 (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Roman Holiday, Sabrina, The Graduate, Charade, White Christmas, MASH and Good Morning Vietnam), only 2 are from this century – Pirates of the Caribbean (2003) and Silver Linings Playbook (2012).

Additionally, their top comedy recommendations for me include ‘Maz Jobrani: I come in Peace’, ‘Tortilla Soup’ and ‘Welcome to Dongmakgol’; each movie gets 4.5 / 5; stars as personalised recommendations for me. No doubt you are also scratching your head and asking “Max who?” and what the %$%^*$%* a Dongmakgol and can it be eaten?

Then there is also the fact that Netflix continues to have a large selection of Mr. Sandler’s movies in both the US and abroad; “We had almost all of Adam’s movies in the first pay window in the U.S. Today, we continue to have those movies in the first pay window in Canada. And then, through various windows that follow the pay window all the way to the deep catalog, we’ve licensed Adam’s movies in all of our territories.” (Source: Hollywood Reporter). Considering these two data points one could surmise that Netflix has a pretty poor selection of comedy films in their library but a wide selection of Mr. Sandler’s movies.

If you are like most people, who sign-up for a monthly subscription service, you only feel you are getting value for your money if you are able to watch movies frequently. You start by looking for recent comedy films, finding none you tend to default to one with a recognisable actor. On both these counts your Netflix search will deliver an abundance of Mr. Sandler’s titles because of the limitation of their current comedy catalogue. I have no doubt that their viewing data is accurate, and many subscribers are watching Mr. Sandler’s films, even repeatedly; but if I were to add a dose of judgement I would also guess that this is has less to do with his popularity or the quality of the films, and all to do with the fact that there is really nothing else worthwhile to watch…

Then there was also the bizarre press release issued by Mr. Sandler saying he signed this deal because “Netflix rhymed with wet chicks.” Hopefully, this is not an early indication of the substance of each of the $40 million a film that Netflix is reportedly paying him. (Source: Reuters).

While I laud Netflix use of data (House of Cards is a brilliant case in point) and for continually breaking ground in entertainment and forcing studios and TV networks to think in a more customer-centric manner; I am not sure I agree with their choice of Mr. Sandler. I wonder if this is an instance of using data for illumination, rather than support; but either way it will be interesting to see who has the last laugh.