For most of the last 20 years, HBO has been the player the rest of the TV business was chasing and imitating. But a recent meeting between the current head of HBO and one of his new corporate bosses from AT&T suggests the cable giant may soon be following someone else’s lead. On July 8th, The New York Times published a disconcerting story, “HBO Must Get Bigger and Broader, Says Its New Overseer,” which featured excerpts from a conversation between veteran AT&T executive John Stankey and HBO chief executive Richard Plepler about Stankey’s vision for the network in the wake of the AT&T/Time-Warner merger. The gist: He wants HBO to consume more and more of its customers’ time:
“We need hours a day,” Stankey said, referring to the time viewers spend watching HBO programs. “It’s not hours a week, and it’s not hours a month. We need hours a day. You are competing with devices that sit in people’s hands that capture their attention every 15 minutes.”
Continuing the theme, he added: “I want more hours of engagement. 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.”
The subtext is plain: Stankey wants HBO to be just like Netflix.
But should he?
Stankey’s desire to own as many hours of his subscribers’ day as possible rings very true to Netflix’s own combine-and-conquer strategy, where more is virtually always more: more money, more shows, more deals with high-profile producers (Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy and even the Obamas), more episodes released at once. Just more. Keep adding it all up until every consumer asks why they could possibly need any other entertainment supplier.
In many ways, Netflix’s gluttonous approach has been to the good of the industry. Its strategy of releasing entire seasons at once was a deft acknowledgment of the way many viewers were already learning to consume television, and it has driven both fellow streamers and more traditional outlets to at least experiment with a bigger, bolder binge-release model.
It has opened the business up to so many new kinds of voices and shows. Who else would have tried Orange Is the New Black, a women’s-prison dramedy featuring a mostly unknown cast of characters spanning a wide spectrum of racial, sexual and gender identities? Or BoJack Horseman, which is both a wickedly funny animated Hollywood satire and TV’s most incisive and sad depiction of clinical depression? Or Aziz Ansari’s empathetic, experimental Master of None? Lady Dynamite, Maria Bamford’s surreal comedy about living with bipolar disorder? American Vandal, a parody of podcasts like Serial and true-crime docs like HBO’s own The Jinx that was both profane (its mystery was about who spray-painted 27 dicks on 27 cars in a school parking lot) and profound? And Netflix’s boldness in turn has nudged the rest of the business to push the outer edge of the creative envelope.
But the more-is-more philosophy has its downsides, too. Netflix’s comedies (also including the sublime remake of One Day at a Time and the Eighties wrestling comedy GLOW) tend to be much stronger than its dramas, where even the best ones tend to crumble under the weight of more episodes than they have story to fill them. The “our season is really a 13-hour movie” approach of the service’s more serious shows – pure serialization, everything always padded out to fill the production order, no distinctive episodes to help keep things interesting while waiting for all the story threads to come together – is a plague that is starting to infect more traditional areas of television, as you can see cable and even network creators structuring their shows for an inevitable streaming afterlife, and abandoning one of TV’s biggest structural advantages in the process. Stranger Things is more or less Netflix’s only drama where the seasons are just the right length to avoid running out of steam, whereas all the Marvel seasons tend to be at least twice as long as they should be. (Case in point: Luke Cage’s endless second year.)
Sure, Netflix execs could order their producers to make shorter seasons. But why would they? More episodes means more time spent on Netflix – and not watching HBO, FX, ABC, Amazon or anyone else. And since many subscribers are already conditioned to watch to the end (the move against episodic storytelling and toward a perpetual “To Be Continued” is a misguided part of that, even though it’s just as easy to let the interface immediately roll you into the next episode of a procedural drama as it is for something like Ozark), an uneven and frustrating 13-hour version of a show is considered much more valuable than a consistently great six-hour version. It’s been five years since House of Cards debuted as Netflix’s first major original drama. In that time, Netflix has premiered more than two dozen original dramas, yet by far the best hour-long shows you can still watch on the service are library titles that originally aired elsewhere, like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Freaks and Geeks and The West Wing, to name a few.
To the subscribers who view Netflix as their TV alpha and omega, this may not seem like an important distinction. Breaking Bad, to many viewers, is a Netflix show, as it’s where they first encountered it and perhaps watched all of it there. The CW’s business model these days functions less as a broadcast network and more as an incubator for Netflix-friendly shows like Riverdale. But Netflix was able to build this large and brand-loyal customer base in an era when it was the only real streaming game in town, when various studios and networks had signed away lengthy streaming rights deals without realizing this was where the business was going. Whether the Netflix originals were great or not, that $7.99 gave you access to so much brilliant TV, past and present, that it was easy to buy in and ignore the gaps in that library (a Wire here, a Justified there).
Netflix has pushed so hard into developing or buying its own exclusive content in large part because that cost-effective paradise when you only needed one or two subscriptions to see everything has given way to a new streaming arms race. A lot of Netflix’s best library titles (Lost, X-Files, 30 Rock) have moved over to Hulu (which has the most impressive overall TV catalog at the moment, even if its lineup of originals isn’t as deep), and other companies like CBS (with All Access shows like The Good Fight and Star Trek: Discovery) and Disney have either launched their own subscription services or have one in the works. You no longer need a cable subscription to watch HBO shows, as Netflix’s rise surely encouraged the creation of the standalone HBO Now service (which, in addition to strong current shows like Game of Thrones, The Deuce and Sharp Objects, also gives you inner-circle Hall of Fame shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood and Curb Your Enthusiasm). Pretty soon, there will be enough different services that to watch all the most interesting content, you’ll have to pay about as much as you do now for a traditional cable bundle, if not more. And while Netflix’s library content won’t ever go away entirely, it will lean more on originals with each passing year, and hope that the sheer tonnage of pretty good to very good shows will matter more than how few great ones they have.
Can this expansion continue forever?
Nobody outside the company knows how many people are watching any of these shows – including the people making them – and Netflix has tended to operate more by Silicon Valley rules than Hollywood ones, treating growth as a goal to be achieved no matter the cost. And even that expansion has slowed to a degree: After going years without canceling any shows before their creators were ready to say goodbye, Netflix recently purged a whole bunch of expensive and/or niche programming (including the aforementioned Lady Dynamite), shattering the illusion that it was safe to start watching any of their shows without having to worry about them ending abruptly.
But Netflix had the marketplace to itself for an awfully long time, during which it built up such brand loyalty among some customers, particularly younger ones, that even big players in other fields like Disney, Apple and, yes, HBO may not be able to compete, leaving Netflix as the last service standing. Look at what happened to all the retailers who tried competing directly with Amazon: Virtually all went out of business because consumers already had the one Amazon, while the survivors tended to be boutique companies that emphasized quality over quantity, and were able to consistently make money because their customers had an inherent trust in the brand to curate the best products for them.
Which sounds an awful lot like a certain cable network that’s given us mobsters, dope slingers and dragons over the years.
HBO’s current model isn’t perfect. It’s had high-profile failures (True Detective Season Two), shows that have stuck around past their creative expiration date (Silicon Valley) and great ones that were predominantly watched by your favorite TV critics (Enlightened). But commercially and qualitatively, it works, and trying to scale up to consume many hours a day, every day, is a quick way to lose that fundamental sense of, “I don’t know about this new show, but HBO has vetted it, so I’ll give it a try.”
Netflix wants to flood the marketplace with series and seasons and episodes until it washes away the competition. HBO’s best bet to hold its ground shouldn’t be to get exponentially bigger, but to stay strong at what it already does so well. More is still more for Netflix, but it doesn’t have to be for everyone.