Killing the TV Star: HBO in the Age of Netflix
Following the 2018 Emmy nominations, TV may have entered a new era
For 17 straight years, there was an indisputable “king of television.” For 17 consecutive years, there was one channel that was the go-to place for the highest quality, premiere TV programming. For 17 straight years, there was one channel that all other TV producers chased behind in imitation. That channel was HBO. Now, for the first time in 17 years, the TV giant may be losing its footing as the high-water mark of scripted TV. In its place? Netflix, the premiere “cable-killer.”
I’m being a bit hyperbolic. HBO, as a brand, is still the consistent standard for TV and streaming services to match in terms of quality and name recognition. Game of Thrones and Westworld individually garnered the most nominations of all eligible series; over 20 each. That said, this year’s Emmy Awards are the first time since 2001 that HBO has not had the most nominations of all the competing networks. The network garnered 108 nominations to Netflix’s 112. To be honest, given how much content Netflix puts out compared to traditional TV outlets, this outcome was almost certain to pass at some point. As Entertainment Weekly notes, Netflix accomplished this feat “not by doing a few shows extremely well, but by doing a lot of shows very well. Netflix racked up nods through a wide breadth of nominations for 40 shows in total.”
Since the nominations were announced a couple of weeks ago, many industry insiders have been trying to figure out what exactly this twist of fate means. The millennial side of me isn’t at all surprised, and doesn’t quite get why this “upset” is even newsworthy. The side of me that likes to track the entertainment industry is curious about the implications behind this year’s Emmy nominations. Looking at this from both sides makes me wonder: what is TV’s new normal? Maybe network executives are right when they say that millennials are killing TV (and movie theaters, traditional American values, and everything else good and holy).
I don’t think the nominations themselves are the issue; it’s more a matter of direction and uncertainty. The Emmy nominations are just confirming that HBO is having a problem keeping up with the era of peak TV that it created. When I say that, I’m referring to two different issues: content and strategy.
To start with, HBO’s exceedingly high quality is no longer unique. It paved the way, for sure, but it now exists in a world with Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, FX and several other cable channels that are moving toward prestige programming. When it comes to killer must-see programming, HBO has a few good shows, but a lot of its current status rests on the back of Game of Thrones, and (to a lesser extent) Late Night with John Oliver, Westworld, and True Detective. Those latter two shows went downhill in their second seasons, but Game of Thrones has been a global cultural phenomenon since its debut. It stands alongside Oz, The Wire, The Sopranos, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and a number of other classics. It’s also moving into its final season, and when it’s gone, HBO won’t have that one flagship program that dominates the TV conversation. I liked Big Little Lies a lot, but it didn’t and won’t set the world on fire like Netflix’s Stranger Things or Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Basically, HBO’s whole shtick was being great at a time when TV was just good. Now, people who choose to watch TV can choose to watch TV that is specific to them, rather than what network executives want them to watch. At this point, I’m not entirely sure that shows like The Deuce will fully capture the imaginations of millennial viewers.
That’s another problem of HBO, and it’s a simple numbers game. There’s a matter of subscribers and a matter of profit. HBO is big, but it’s new bosses want it to be bigger. That makes sense in a way; HBO is one of the victims of cord-cutting. Many young adult audiences, college-age kids and recent grads in particular, only have access to HBO through their parents’ HBO GO accounts. All the cordless outlets for TV are expanding their reach and their libraries of content. AT&T, which recently acquired Time Warner and HBO, is directing HBO to match those streaming giants. According to the investment advice website The Motley Fool, Netflix has “a market cap of $182 billion, more than double Time Warner’s market cap…HBO routinely topped Netflix at award shows like the Emmys, yet Netflix long ago surpassed HBO in virtually every other meaningful category, including domestic subscribers, content, and market value.” Netflix’s brand is stronger than it’s ever been, as evidenced by the fact that it’s user base is still growing by several million every year. HBO is still technically more profitable, as Netflix infamously operates at a loss. That said, AT&T still wants the network to change and to update with the times, so that it stays relevant to the most relevant and profitable current consumer: the millennial. Since the company’s now under the thumb of a new corporate powerhouse, HBO is finally addressing a problem they’ve had for some time now.
I don’t know what else HBO can do to match Netflix. They’ve had HBO GO for some time now, and they finally launched HBO Now a while back. They should have had those services sooner, but better late than never. Personally, as much as I like HBO’s programming, I barely ever watch it now because I only like to watch it live, and I don’t use HBO GO much. I know it’s there, but when I think about HBO, I think about the traditional channel. It’s a perception problem; I don’t think about it as a streaming service. I am too much of a millennial, I guess. Opening an app just to watch one channel’s shows seems like such a hassle. I’d rather turn to Netflix, Amazon, or Hulu, or even YouTube where I can waste time watching things I didn’t know I wanted to watch. I don’t like using it because I don’t like opening up an app that only has old HBO shows and mainstream films I’ve seen countless times before. I can’t binge their new shows, and I won’t stumble upon some obscure art-house horror film. That said, in terms of original content, I vastly prefer HBO over Netflix. It’s not a close competition.
I know that part of the reason Netflix is currently on top is that it will just make anything. A lot of it is terrible, but a lot of it works for at least one audience. There’s something for everybody, and that’s appealing, but it’s not a business strategy traditional channels can mimic (or won’t). I’m curious to see how the entirely profit-driven AT&T executives will change the usually auteur and quality-driven HBO heads. It’s entirely possible that all AT&T will have to do is wait out the clock because there’s only so much money Netflix can afford to burn through on its race to the top of TV mountain. Whether the company has to raise the price of subscription, whether they lose too many of their licenses to third-party content (a very real possibility), or whether people just get tired of paying for Adam Sandler and David Spade comedies, Netflix’s future is just as uncertain (if not more) than HBO’s.
So, is HBO down and out? Absolutely not. They’re the home of TV prestige. Even now, Game of Thrones and Westworld pulled more nominations than the Netflix shows (not that that means either show will win them all). Watchmen, True Detective season 3, and the Game of Thrones spin-off series are coming, and they could all be the must-see shows the channel is dying for. The channel experimented a bit with the Steven Soderbergh directed Mosaic, a “choose your own adventure”-style show/app hybrid. Nonetheless, HBO will survive, and it’s taking steps to ensure it keeps up with the changing industry. However, ultimately, the little streaming service that could ended a 17-year reign. We’re in an age where HBO wants to be Netflix, and Netflix wants to be HBO. One has the quality and the other has the numbers. I think we are now fully in a new age of TV norms. Blame millennials, blame technology, blame copycats, but it doesn’t matter. HBO is now just TV.