The Time Warner-owned network needs hits, but it can't afford to spend the way Netflix can.
Television is a harsh mistress, and perhaps no one knows that better than HBO. It was once the king of the new TV players, with hit shows like Game of Thrones, and a key position within parent Time Warner. Then along came Netflix, the new ingénue that everyone wanted to work with. Soon its share price was soaring, it was spending billions launching new hit shows, and it was well on its way to becoming a streaming-TV powerhouse.
Whether it’s TV or movies, everyone knows that Hollywood is driven by ratings. And here the difference between HBO and its larger competitor is dramatic: Unlike HBO, Netflix doesn’t disclose viewership information about its shows—not even to the actors and producers and directors who create them.
HBO, unfortunately, lives and dies by the rating like every other movie studio and TV network, and the results for one of its new shows—Vinyl, a look at the record industry in the 1970s—are said to be underwhelming. So Netflix looks like a star for spending billions on new dramas and comedies, and HBO looks vulnerable because it spent more than $100 million on a show that could be a flop.
Even if Vinyl starts to pick up fans, the pressure on HBO is definitely intensifying, and it’s coming from all sides. The channel hasn’t had a really big new hit since Game of Thrones, and that premiered in 2011. And since HBO accounts for as much as 30% of the operating profit at Time Warner, where cable subscriber numbers are weakening due to cord-cutting, there’s even more pressure to grow and churn out hits. Time Warner shares TWX have fallen by more than 25% since last summer.
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Meanwhile, HBO’s own streaming service HBO Now, which debuted in 2014, has only managed to sign up 800,000 subscribers. That’s substantially fewer than analysts were expecting it to have by now. HBO itself still has almost twice as many overall subscribers as Netflix does, with about 130 million to Netflix’s 74 million, but it isn’t growing and Netflix is.
The streaming-video company recently launched in more than 130 countries around the world, and has said it wants to be the world’s first global television platform. And it’s not just Netflix that HBO is competing against either—there’s also Amazon Prime Video, which has been winning awards and spending big on new shows and films.
As a recent feature in Billboard magazine noted, Vinyl also isn’t the only weak spot in HBO’s line-up. A sci-fi series called Westworld, produced by J.J. Abrams and starring Anthony Hopkins, has been put on hold and may not air until 2017. And House of Cards director David Fincher, who was working on two shows for HBO, has jumped ship and is now said to be developing a new show for Netflix.
HBO has also shut down a six-part miniseries that was being produced by Brad Pitt and Tom Hanks after weeks of shooting, Billboard says, and scrapped a proposed series starring Helena Bonham Carter and Paul Dano after ordering six episodes and filming a pilot.
Netflix, meanwhile, has committed to spend as much as $5 billion on content this year alone filming 10 new feature films, 30 children’s shows, 12 documentaries, and 10 stand-up comedy specials. Which is the kind of thing you can get away with when your stock NFLX has climbed by more than 135% in the past year (although Netflix shares have been under pressure in the past few months). And the competition is only getting more difficult.