As reported by Variety, HBO recently released profit and revenue figures which just go to show you that prestige-TV producing is a great business to be in, at the moment. HBO pulled down about $4.9 billion overall. But the numbers also show that Netflix is catching up. In the last quarter of 2013, HBO earned about $1.3 billion in revenue. Netflix, for its part, earned $1.2 billion, and its profits are growing much faster than HBO’s.
It’s not hard to account for that quick growth. That Netflix might actually become a viable television production house of its own seemed laughable just over a year ago. But now that we’re all eagerly awaiting the second season of the Golden Globes-winning House of Cards, which arrives next week, not to mention Orange Is the New Black, or any of the myriad new series we’ve been promised, it’s practically a fait accompli. And Netflix has a growing subscriber base that reflects that. In fact, according to the Variety article, Netflix now has more subscribers (33.4 million) than HBO (29.2 million).
That all is excellent news for Netflix, but I think it’s less clear what it says about HBO. One easy explanation for why Netflix is beginning to outpace HBO on subscribers, after all, is that it’s (a) cheaper and (b) easier to subscribe to Netflix on the whole. If you want to add HBO to your lineup, you have to get on the phone with a sad, resentful, and likely underemployed cable customer service rep. And usually, you can’t get it unless you buy some egregiously expensive cable bundle to go with it. Meanwhile, click over to Netflix and a mere $7.99 later, you’re in business.
You probably do not need me to tell you there are ways around the cable-company bureaucracy to get HBO. For example, all over America right now, kids in college (and in HBO’s target demographics) are leeching off their parents’ HBO subscriptions and watching the shows on HBO Go. This, in my anecdotal observations, seems to be preferred to some kind of BitTorrent solution. And indeed, if HBO Go were available as a standalone subscription, I bet most of the people now leeching off parents would consider subscribing. I pay my own HBO bill right now, and I have to say I’d think about it too.
One of the great lessons, actually, of the download/pirate age is that people will still often pay for the relative convenience of cheap and quick access to the cultural items they love. It’s not a total solution — there are still people who prefer to leech — but it is one that HBO would find immediately, enormously successful, even as it might occasion the collapse of cable companies across the nation when subscribers like myself quit conventional cable en masse. (Though I bet they’d still see most people over say, 35, retain conventional cable for some time to come.)
It’s clear that HBO is already aware of this free advice I’m offering. It is likely that their hands are mostly tied by contractual arrangements with cable companies, as they stand right now. But it seems like there’s a crack of light under that door. In October, Comcast introduced a package that allowed basic cable subscribers to add on an HBO Go subscription without purchasing a premium cable package. So c’mon guys, put your heads together, make standalone subscriptions happen! The nation is starving for an endless-loop Game of Thrones binge-watch, and you alone have the power to be the change we want to see in the world.