Yes, HBO should be more like Netflix

When the New York Times reported earlier this week on a meeting between HBO employees and one of their new overlords at AT&T, the story had all the indicia of corporate greed run amok.

AT&T executive John Stankey, now the head of Warner Media following AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner, reportedly told HBO employees to expect a “tough year” as the venerable network changed direction. Getting “more hours of engagement” would become a priority, Stankey said, because more engagement means “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.” When Richard Plepler, HBO’s chief executive, pointed out that the network already makes money, Stankey agreed, but added, “Just not enough.”

Observers pounced on the report as a sign that AT&T would ruin HBO by pushing quantity over quality. Gizmodo’s Rhett Jones bemoaned the possibility of “turning the carefully curated, profitable, and beloved HBO into a big-data monster like Netflix.” The Atlantic’s David Sims perceived Stankey’s comments as a threat to HBO’s “prestige” sensibility, perhaps bringing about “the end of HBO as we know it.” Headlines abound with the possibility that HBO was headed toward ruin.

Let’s briefly set aside the possibility that that the Times’ report didn’t capture the full context of Stankey’s remarks, as Recode’s Peter Kafka argued after hearing the meeting audio himself. The AT&T exec has a point: HBO should be more engaging than it is now, not just for AT&T’s benefit, but for the benefit of HBO’s subscribers.

That doesn’t mean HBO should start emphasizing quantity over quality–and, reading Stankey’s full remarks, I’m not convinced that’s what he was driving at–but it does mean HBO needs to change. Despite its prestigious veneer, HBO is in the business of producing mass-market entertainment and should want people to consume more of it. Right now, the network isn’t doing all it can to make that happen. Even if HBO doesn’t become a Netflix clone, there are plenty of ideas it ought to borrow from the streaming video giant.

Some examples:

Abandon weekly episodes

Limiting new episodes to once per week makes some sense as a way to build hype around tentpole series such as Game of Thrones; but for most shows, not being able to binge-watch is just frustrating. As Netflix content chief Ted Sarandos has noted, people want to watch shows on their own schedules, and they increasingly prefer to spend lots of time with one show before moving on to the next one. By telling people they can only watch episodes of Silicon Valley or Crashing in 30-minute increments, HBO is doing viewers a disservice and making itself less engaging.

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Make a better app

While some people gripe about Netflix’s interface, for the most part it works. Information about each show is right on the surface, and your recently-watched shows are easily accessible alongside interesting new recommendations. As a result, Netflix is becoming the default place people go to watch TV.

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