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AT&T wants to make HBO more like Netflix, and it could be a disaster

You don’t need to be that old to remember a time when simply being HBO was enough to get people excited about HBO. Those three letters were a major selling point for hotels and motels. Not only did you get a bed for the night, but you got HBO — all you could watch — for as long as you were there. If you didn’t have HBO as part of your cable package, this could be a big deal.

How times have changed. These days, you can watch a movie anywhere. The idea of waiting for a certain time to watch a movie on a certain channel isn’t just dated, it’s downright archaic. Netflix, or services like it, are where you go when it’s time to watch a movie.

Those three letters were a major selling point for hotels and motels.

HBO has adapted to this mindset, somewhat. The channel is content to roll out the occasional megahit, whether it’s Game of Thrones, Westworld, or looking back a bit, The Sopranos, but it seems that the network still considers its lineup of movies as a major part of what makes it attractive to customers. But is this really the way anyone watches movies, or even TV anymore?

Most people don’t think about HBO as a major benefit to a hotel room now. They might not even ever use the hotel’s in-room entertainment unless it lets them log into their Netflix account simply and easily. Instead, they might just plug in their Chromecast, Roku Streaming Stick, or Fire TV Stick, log into the hotel’s Wi-Fi, and go right back to the same TV viewing experience they’re used to enjoying at home.


This isn’t meant to paint a grim picture of the current state of HBO. By all accounts, the network is doing just fine, with more than 5 million subscribers to its online offerings, which include HBO Now and HBO Go, while the network itself has more than 142 million subscribers throughout the world. Instead, let’s take a look at what HBO will likely begin to look like moving forward.


Following AT&T’s recent acquisition of HBO parent company Time Warner, HBO has been lead by AT&T executive John Stankey, who also played a key role in launching AT&T’s DirecTV Now service. Instead of congratulating HBO on its recent success, Stankey told employees to prepare for a “tough year,” the New York Times reports, adding that “It’s going to be a lot of work to alter and change direction a little bit.”

When HBO was airing Deadwood, it wasn’t looking at competing for screen time against its viewers’ phones.

What might this direction change look like? We’ll have to wait until we see it to know for sure, but someone prone to betting would likely have pretty good odds if they said that a change of direction for HBO would have it looking a lot more like Netflix. The question is: Would that be a good thing or a bad thing?

“It’s not hours a week, and it’s not hours a month,” Stankey told HBO employees. “We need hours a day. You are competing with devices that sit in people’s hands that capture their attention every 15 minutes.”

Basically, Stankey wants to see more people turning to HBO for their binge-watching as they do Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and others. How does the network get that? The answer likely doesn’t have anything to do with the films it’s showing on its TV channels, and the fact that he’s talking about hours of engagement, not quality programming, is telling.

CEO of AT&T Entertainment Group John Stankey speaks onstage during AT&T's celebration of the Launch of DIRECTV NOW at Venue 57 on November 28, 2016 in New York City.
Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images

Both television networks and streaming services are businesses, and that means putting what’s good for the business first, but there’s a big difference between looking at it as “we need a hit show” versus “we need more hours of engagement.” It might be ridiculous to look at HBO’s past decisions as being all about creating the best programming possible, but when the network was airing Deadwood, it wasn’t looking at competing for screen time against its viewers’ phones.

Once hours of engagement begin driving creative decisions, it’s easy to see the network opting to operate in a more Netflix-like fashion; bombarding viewers with so much content they couldn’t possibly keep up with it all, even if they tried. And they do try.

Can you name all of the Netflix Originals available on the service? The answer is likely no.

This might make good business sense, at least if everything goes according to plan, but is this what we want from HBO? Sure, the days of turning on the TV just to see what might be on are long behind us, but do we need or even want yet another streaming service competing with Netflix to snap up exclusive rights to shows and movies?

Yes, HBO has been after this market for some time, and that’s why HBO Now exists. And yes, HBO has become increasingly known for its hit shows rather than its movie collection, but it has also gained a reputation for quality shows. Netflix seems to be moving further and further from that distinction, instead offering its subscribers quantity. Can you name all of the Netflix Originals available on the service? The answer is likely no, and even if it is yes right now, it probably won’t stay that way for long.

For a younger audience that has only ever been used to streaming, the transformation of HBO into yet another content factory streaming service likely won’t mean a thing. To those who remember when those three letters were spoken as if they carried a sort of magic, it could mean the end of an era.

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