AT&T plans to expand HBO, but could destroy it in the process


One among the 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 story from The New York Occasions raised some issues about 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 workers, 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, thanks to its extremely discerning style and prestige-level programming. Making issues as awkward as potential, Stankey predicted that the coming yr can be so arduous that it would really feel “like childbirth” for HBO workers.

The following day, The Verge sister web site 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 use HBO, and its unique programming crew, as a part of a content material technique that may allow its future distribution plans. “A broad theme that I consider is happening in the trade is there aren’t going to be a limiteless variety of platforms which have direct-to-consumer relationships,” Stankey mentioned, in accordance to Recode. “Now, is it going to be eight, six, or 4? I don’t know, but if it’s 4 we’d like to be one in every of the 4. If it’s six, we’d like to be one in every of the six.”

From HBO’s perspective, that’s actually a extra encouraging take than what the Occasions reported, and between each accounts, it’s clear that AT&T sees the community as an vital a part of its enterprise shifting ahead. But a platform technique for a telecom firm is a vastly completely different animal than a content material technique for a media firm. And whereas AT&T’s ambitions could also be sound, its method could however strip HBO of the very issues which have allowed it to flourish.

Photograph: HBO

Traditionally, there’s all the time been a little bit of a disconnect between expertise corporations and leisure corporations. Name it the distinction between Silicon Valley and Hollywood. Know-how corporations have a tendency to suppose that the issues that work finest in 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 reveals. (Spoiler: it didn’t work out.) But the enterprise of devices and platforms is basically completely different than the enterprise of storytelling and content material. That’s why each tech firm with unique programming ambitions has ultimately simply arrange store in Los Angeles like every other studio.

It’s partially a recognition of how the sausage is definitely made, but one other key motivator is that it’s the finest method to construct and keep relationships with expertise: the writers, administrators, producers, and actors that really make the reveals and films everybody’s in 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 in the 1990s, packages like The Larry Sanders Present didn’t earn network-level scores, but they earned a level of crucial acclaim that wasn’t actually potential with most broadcast community reveals. Issues actually blew open in 1999 with the debut of David Chase’s The Sopranos, a present that’s usually credited with spawning the status drama altogether. Since then, the community has constructed its model round that very same model of elevated programming, whether or not it’s Six Ft Below, The Wire, Sport 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 seemingly to stick round even when their favourite present finishes a season. Sport of Thrones is over? Don’t fear; Westworld is simply round 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 targeted. 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 take care of 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 unique content material is what permits HBO’s reveals to be so refined. “Extra isn’t higher,” Plepler mentioned earlier this yr in a Wall Road Journal piece. “Solely higher is healthier.”

That philosophy is the reverse of what Stankey proposed in 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 simply’re right here, to ‘extra isn’t higher, solely higher is healthier — but we’d like much more to be even higher.’”

In actuality, it’s not that straightforward. It’s very a lot a expertise firm’s mindset to suppose that HBO’s unique content material can merely be handled like a bit of infrastructure: throw extra money at the downside, order extra reveals, and get the very same high quality of output, simply multiplied by an element of x. But shortage is a part of what offers HBO reveals their allure; 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 confused when preventing again towards the inflow of unique 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.

Photograph: HBO

When Netflix first bought severe about its unique programming ambitions, it began with Home of Playing cards, ordering two seasons of the sequence with out even seeing a pilot. At the time, the method was daring and creator-friendly, opening an thrilling new avenue for showrunners who have been trying to arrange their tasks. That continued as the service grew extra formidable. Every of its reveals acquired contemporary rounds of consideration from the viewing public due to the sheer novelty that Netflix reveals — which, at the time, nonetheless appeared extra akin to net sequence slightly than achieved tv — have been really good.

But fast-forward to immediately, and new Netflix reveals are something but particular. The service plans to spend $eight billion this yr on unique content material, hoping to make half of its complete catalog unique packages and films over the coming years. Fifteen completely different unique movies and TV reveals are rolling out in July alone, and August doesn’t look a lot lighter. In some ways, unique programming has turn out to be a commodity at Netflix. And whereas that does imply extra inventive works are being produced than they’d be in any other case, it additionally makes it that a lot more durable for any single program to escape and enter the zeitgeist. Couple that with the undeniable fact that Netflix tends to focus its promoting on reveals which are already recognized portions, like Stranger Issues or its Marvel sequence, and what outcomes is a scenario the place particular person creators can begin to really feel that their reveals aren’t being given the consideration they deserve and are getting misplaced in the relentless content material deluge.

That’s the crux of the complete difficulty: expertise really is the whole lot. In any case, with out nice writers, administrators, and actors, there is no such thing as a nice tv to watch. Algorithms will help observe viewing habits and decide what an viewers is drawn to, they usually can serve up a present you’ll like primarily based on what you’ve watched earlier than. But really making a present? That’s a gaggle effort — a really human one.

“If there have been a scarcity at our door of expertise wanting to work right here, I might be involved,” Plepler mentioned throughout the city corridor. “But there’s a surfeit of expertise at the door that desires to work right here.” That’s true, but it’s solely true due to the method HBO at present operates. Rework it right into a enterprise that’s knocking out extra reveals throughout extra genres all in 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 firm’s ambitions elegantly: “The objective is to turn out to be HBO quicker than HBO can turn out to be us.” In the years since, one thing completely different has really occurred. Netflix has turn out to be a creator of some wonderful reveals, but the sheer quantity it produces has saved it from having fun with the identical sort of pedigree its rival enjoys. HBO, on the different hand, has improved its streaming capabilities and providers, but it has solely gingerly expanded its content material manufacturing, permitting it to keep its deluxe sheen. It’s comprehensible why AT&T sees that as an untapped alternative. There’s the streaming platform play, but in the city corridor, Stankey additionally talked about knowledge assortment and promoting — all the issues that you’d anticipate a telecommunications firm to take into consideration when it comes to 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 in the first place.

“A community doesn’t get constructed in a day,” Stankey mentioned when answering a query about AT&T’s curiosity in long-term investments. “You suppose it takes a very long time to write 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 in the wi-fi community enterprise.



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