Last week, amid rumors that Netflix was planning to bid for the new "House of Cards" TV series, directed by David Fincher (a deal finally confirmed late Friday afternoon), there was no shortage of media coverage asking, "Could Netflix be the next HBO?" As interesting a question as that one is, here's one that's even more intriguing, and provocative: "Could HBO be the next BLOCKBUSTER?" At first blush, the comparison might seem ridiculous, and admittedly there are numerous differences between the two. But there are some troubling similarities which should be causing the HBO executive team to now be on high alert.
Tops on the list of similarities are distribution and how changing technology can affect entrenched ways of doing business. In its day, BLOCKBUSTER blanketed America, and other parts of the world, with video rental stores, which allowed it to dominate the category. However, when Netflix and others, plus video-on-demand, began changing consumer perceptions of convenience and value (no more late fees!), BLOCKBUSTER was slow to adapt, and ultimately only took half measures that weren't sufficiently competitive. To be fair, it should be noted that over the last 20 years BLOCKBUSTER has undergone persistent corporate-level tumult (e.g. Viacom acquisition and spin-off, Carl Icahn attention, multiple CEOs, bankruptcy, etc.), which doesn't exactly create the ideal context for strategic product innovation. But the larger point remains: as important as a well-oiled distribution model is, changing gears and adapting to new technology-driven circumstances is never trivial.
HBO now finds itself confronting the same issue. It too has grown successful capitalizing on a famously productive distribution partnership with pay-TV operators, who have used HBO's platinum brand to drive adoption of their own services. But just as every strength inevitably has its weakness, the powerful pay-TV led distribution approach may now working against HBO, leaving it increasingly vulnerable to upstarts like Netflix and others.
Because HBO has no direct-to-consumer model, it is 100% reliant on its pay-TV distributors for its subscription success. That means that as these relationships ebb and flow, the company does not have full control of its business. Last year, for example, HBO was in a spat with DirecTV, which essentially ceased having its customer service reps promoting HBO. This was an important, though only partial contributor to HBO's loss of almost 2 million subscribers in 2010. This is a trend that's not going away either; where HBO and other premium channels were once pay-TV's top promotional levers, they've long been replaced by other higher-margin services like high-speed Internet, digital, HD, VOD, voice, DVR, etc. In short, pay-TV operators now have many arrows in their quiver. While HBO and other premium networks are still valuable profit drivers, they don't have the pay-TV operators' mindshare like they used to.
As serious as that problem is, HBO has another, far bigger problem with its current pay-TV distribution model: because consumers can subscribe to HBO only when they have first subscribed to a full tier of basic channels, now often costing $60 or more per month, today's model puts a significant financial hurdle in HBO's way (it should be noted the government actually mandates HBO and other premium channels must be technically made available with inexpensive "broadcast" tiers, but most consumers have no idea about this option which is never promoted by pay-TV operators). The basic tier "buy through" challenge is being dramatically magnified because the recession has forced people to cut back their already-sizable cable bills, and because it makes a $10/month Netflix service look like an even more attractive alternative.
The "buy-through" bundle is of course at the heart of the pay-TV operators' model, and has for decades worked just fine for HBO and other premium cable networks. But it's now working against them in another important, but more subtle, way. As I've written before, sports has been a key driver of basic tier rate increases, and now accounts for a disproportionate amount of pay-TV operators' monthly licensing fees. As a result, non-sports fans and casual ones are paying a massive multi-billion dollar/year subsidy which cannot last in an era of vastly greater choice. So while basic channel bundling is a fabulous model for ESPN and other sports networks, for many consumers it is pricing-out HBO and other premium networks. Inevitably, some percentage of entertainment-oriented consumers, who are already shifting their viewership patterns to Netflix, Hulu and other entertainment sites, are going to realize they can save a lot of money by dropping pay-TV or simple never subscribing in the first place. All these people are effectively out of HBO's reach.
As the market fragments, with entertainment-only consumers drawn to online alternatives, and sports fans glued to pay-TV, HBO is going to find itself dangerously misaligned with its target entertainment-oriented consumer. In its defense, HBO hasn't been oblivious to the changing world. It has tried to be more accessible online, launching HBO GO, an authenticated TV Everywhere service. But because HBO GO still requires the consumer to first subscribe to the "buy through" basic service - and of course to HBO itself - it is a nice value-add, but just a half-measure, and in no way fully competitive with Netflix.
HBO finds itself in a position that other consumer brands have in the past: reliant on a traditional distribution system that still works decently well, but compelled to think about a direct-to-consumer model as the competitive dynamic shifts. This past weekend, walking a local upscale Boston-area mall, I was reminded of how many of these brands have taken the "direct" step, opening up their own specialty shops: LEGO, Izod, Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors, etc. The most famous of all is Apple which still sells plenty of product outside its own stores.
Each of these companies has somehow figured out how to avoid "channel conflict" (in management-consultant speak), to continue incenting their big retail distribution partners (e.g. Macy's, Bloomingdales, Target, etc.) to still sell their products, even as they've begun selling them themselves (one important distinction is that these retailers don't have an underlying "buy-through" purchase at risk when brands like these open their own specialty stores, as pay-TV providers would if HBO went direct).
HBO must now figure out this puzzle too. Remaining locked to its pay-TV distribution partners is a dead-end. Just as BLOCKBUSTER found that being on the wrong side of technology shifts is a perilous place to be, HBO is now getting its first inklings. Netflix has masterfully capitalized on technology. It has direct interaction with its subscribers, knows their wants and needs, can tweak its service and its price at will and has a range of marketing/promotional tactics at its disposal - all things HBO can only dream about, for now. With "House of Cards" Netflix is now encroaching on HBO's original TV series franchise. Even size is an advantage HBO will likely lose sometime later this year as Netflix eclipses HBO's 28 million subscriber level. Last but not least, Netflix has the deep financial resources that being a Wall Street darling affords it, while HBO is buried inside the far-larger Time Warner.
HBO is a powerful, global colossus, with a well-loved brand. But to stay competitive in a dramatically altered competitive environment will require the company actually live up to its long-time slogan, "It's not TV. It's HBO."