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The Standalone Streaming Service HBO Didn't Want To Offer Now Has 5 Million Users


You might recall that just a few years ago, HBO had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the modern era. For years the company refused to offer a standalone streaming TV service, worried that it would jeopardize the company's cozy promotional relationship with existing cable providers (who often all but give away the channel in promotions). As recently as 2013 Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes was claiming that such an offering would make "no economic sense."

Why? Bewkes was worried that offering a standalone option would upset cable partners. At the time, those partners were already offering an HBO streaming app named HBO Go, but only if you signed up for traditional TV. This was art of the industry's walled garden "TV Everywhere" initiative, a misguided attempt at stopping cord cutters by only giving them innovative streaming services -- if they signed up for bloated, traditional television bundles. Bewkes was clearly worried at the time that being too damn innovative would upset industry executives and skew the company's balance sheets:

"And we would do it if we thought it was in our economic best interest. At this point we don’t think it makes sense. We don’t think the target market is sufficiently large to be attractive at this point. So what we’re doing, and we think this is working pretty well — we’re working with the [pay TV operators] to increase the penetration of HBO Go in a mutually beneficial way."

At the time we noted how HBO was letting fear trump innovation. The company was focusing so much on avoiding upsetting cable operators and worrying over the initial impact on the traditional cable TV cash cow, that it forgot that innovation often trumps the math. In reality, the math Bewkes was concerned about were performance and metrics built on a different, changing market that was on the way out. This kind of hesitation was initially great news for Netflix, whose CEO saw all of this coming long before HBO executives did:

"The goal," says Hastings, "is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us."

All the while, HBO and Time Warner's timidity and failure to listen to consumers resulted in many of its shows breaking piracy records. And while HBO couldn't be bothered to offer a legitimate standalone streaming alternative to piracy, it did spend a lot of time and money trying to derail these efforts, including "poisoning" seeded copies of HBO programs on BitTorrent and sending out oodles of nastygrams to ISPs. Other HBO executives, meanwhile, seemed to share the cable industry mindset that this whole cord cutting thing was just a temporary phenomenon that would blow over.

HBO finally did buckle to offering a standalone streaming service (dubbed HBO Now) in 2014. Just a few years later and the service has just breached 5 million subscribers. And oh, the numbers HBO was so worried about are looking solid too, with HBO Now generating $19 million in revenues for the two months it aired of Game of Thrones Season 7. In this case it all worked out well for HBO, but the company could have enjoyed a much healthier head start if it company executives hadn't let fear trump natural evolution.


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