HBO's prestige ethos was no match for the content wars
How the network went from crown jewel to 90 Day Fiancé supplement
In the winter of 2018, HBO's then-CEO Richard Plepler issued what was either a noble maxim about the pursuit of great art, or foolishly romantic last words, depending on your point of view. "More is not better," he told The Wall Street Journal. "Only better is better."
Plepler's boss, John Stankey, who was running parent company WarnerMedia at the time, fell into the latter camp. By the end of the year, Stankey had ambitions to create a Netflix competitor called HBO Max. "I want more hours of engagement," he reportedly told HBO employees. The service required "hours a day," he insisted, "not hours a week, and it's not hours a month." Shortly thereafter, Plepler — whose tenure had involved overseeing "Golden Age of Television" hits such as Sex and the City, The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, and Veep — resigned.
Now HBO is set to trade hands again, the result of Monday's blockbuster merger between AT&T-owned WarnerMedia and Discovery Inc. Assuming the deal is approved by investors and federal regulators, it sets into motion the creation of the second-largest media company in the U.S., only behind Disney, and just ahead of the seemingly unbeatable Netflix. But while HBO had been considered the "crown jewel" of entertainment back when AT&T bought WarnerMedia in 2016 (only for the telecommunications conglomerate to learn the hard way that getting into the entertainment business does not, in fact, sell more phone subscriptions), the network is now relegated to being merely a supplement in the deal, another chip on the board. Critically-acclaimed shows like The Wire and Succession have become the strange bedfellows of Cake Boss, Pit Bulls and Parolees, and 90 Day Fiancé.
How did this happen?
As Julia Alexander wrote earlier this year for her newsletter Musings on Mouse, there are three key areas that a successful streaming service needs to focus on in 2021, in order to justify their subscription price hikes and to prevent the ever-dreaded churn. The first is where HBO historically excels: Providing "culturally catching content," shows that have the coveted "are you watching —" factor, like Game of Thrones (or, currently, Mare of Easttown). It's what the network built its reputation on: having the biggest and best shows out there, the ones everyone is watching together. Also important, though, is what Alexander calls "snack content," like HBO Max's Fresh Prince of Bel-air and The O.C., which you can revisit over and over again. Finally, you need "consistency or freshness, but ideally both" — the "more hours a day" that Stankey so hungrily pursued.
With the WarnerMedia and Discovery combo, the new company (which is still pending a name) will have 200,000 hours of content starting on "day one," according to Discovery chief executive David Zaslav, who's taking the reins on the project (meanwhile current WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar is, unsurprisingly, eyeing his exit after a disruptive, year-long tenure). Zaslav's emphasis, to be sure, is also on the promise of more, more, more. While "culturally catching content" still gets subscriber sign-ups from time to time — as it did for HBO Max with Wonder Woman 1984, or Disney+ with WandaVision and The Mandalorian, or, more slowly, with Apple TV+ and Ted Lasso — there is also less of a monoculture than there's ever been before. We simply don't have event TV anymore, because there is so much out there to watch that viewers find their own niches. Instead of trying to edge out titans like Amazon and Netflix with a more David-and-Goliath strategy of outplaying them on quality, the strategy now seems to be the brute strength of an overstuffed catalogue.
Merging with Discovery also creates a company that has a built-in audience that WarnerMedia never even attempted to reach — that being, fans of unscripted reality TV shows. Such programs are "considered a major growth area within streaming," with reality TV "nearly doubling year-over-year in Q1 2021 with a 92 percent increase," according to The Observer's Brandon Katz. As he further points out, "Unscripted television is so valuable to Hollywood because it is frequently among the most inexpensive genres to produce. As such, it offers an enticing bang for your buck return."
Putting HBO and Discovery together under one roof isn't necessarily an effort for the new company to save cash. The new company is expected to spend an eye-popping $20 billion on content, surpassing the $17.3 billion Netflix spent on content in 2020. But while HBO will likely keep on doing what it does best for a while yet, a $20 billion budget also implies a throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach that's the antithesis of HBO's traditional intentionality. HBO Max already started down this path by mixing in its premiere HBO programming with random shows and movies from the WarnerMedia library, and down the road, the merger could mean diluting HBO's catalogue of high-quality, award-winning television into something that looks more like the mediocre wasteland of Netflix's "most popular" list. (As Recode notes, "The new company can market the two services [HBO and Discovery] separately, but it will undoubtedly roll out a merged version one day").
Ultimately, going bigger means all the pieces inside start to get smaller, too. HBO went from being the crown jewel of TV, the gold standard of prestige programming, into a convenient highbrow complement to offset HGTV, the Food Network, and Animal Planet. While it might sound cynical, the new mantra of the eventual WarnerMedia-Discovery company could prove to be a winning business strategy, if not an especially artistic one: Better is not better. Only bigger is better.