Ever since it first started developing original scripted programming in the 1990s with “Oz,” HBO has focused on quality: high-concept dramas, unusual comedies, made-for-TV movies that always seemed a cut above the rest.
Now that it has moved to streaming video with HBO Now, that ethos has remained the same: quality, not quantity. Still, in order to compete with the streaming Goliath Netflix, HBO may need to rethink that part of its identity.
According to The New York Times’ Edmund Lee and John Koblin, AT&T executive John Stankey—who now oversees the company’s content group, including HBO—told staffers in a recent town hall that the premium service needs to “figure out how to expand the aperture of it without losing the quality.”
He added, “As I step back and think about what’s unique about the brand and where it needs to go, there’s got to be a little more depth to it, there’s got to be more frequent engagement.” Stankey noted that the company needed to “build that brand so that it’s broad enough to make that happen.”
Expanding the aperture; more depth: In other words: HBO needs to rethink its content mix. To be sure, there is no chance the high-concept premium dramas and comedies go away, but when the competition has thousands of highbrow shows, thousands of lowbrow shows and everything in between, the market looks awfully competitive.
Would HBO experiment with highbrow reality TV? Would it consider comedies with more lowbrow but wider-reaching appeal? Serialized dramas a la “CSI”?
Based on Stankey’s comments, it sounds like anything could be on the table.
Everything—including, possibly, advertising. HBO has been commercial-free since it launched, and while it is unlikely to add commercials to its existing service, Stankey suggested that ads could have a place on the service in the future. Perhaps in a lower-cost tier similar to CBS All Access?
“I want more hours of engagement," Stankey told the HBO town hall. "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.”
Under AT&T’s ownership, HBO is clearly poised to move in a new, broader direction. That suggests a learning curve for staff there, and for the company as a whole. It also suggests that Netflix should look over its shoulder, because one of its long-time streaming competitors is beefing up and getting ready for a fight.