From the moment that cable companies began offering Home Box Office to entertainment-starved homes in middle America — like mine — back in the 1970s, the value proposition was straightforward: There’s nothing like HBO on your TV. I remember how giddy we kids were to watch uncut, commercial-free R-rated movies at home (my father, less so; he called it “Home B.O.”).
There were live boxing matches and rock concerts in stereo and George Carlin and Robin Williams doing comedy, also uncut. HBO cost $9 a month in 1979, or about $32 in today’s money. If you’d asked me, hell yes, it was worth every penny.
Over the years HBO got competition, not only from other pay channels but VCRs, Xbox and you name it. At every turn it had an answer. HBO built a stable of first-rate programs — from Inside the NFL and Def Comedy Jam to The Larry Sanders Show and The Sopranos. At a time when TV networks didn’t make shows starring people of color, HBO did, because those folks were subscribers. Under Sheila Nevins HBO built a world-class stable of documentaries. HBO’s original movies and miniseries won all the awards.
People wanted choices, so there was HBO 2 and 3 and Family and Latino, then on-demand and on-the-go. As the kiddie pool of cable channels became oceans of content, the HBO value proposition held up pretty well. As the old slogan went, “It’s not TV, it’s HBO.”
So today, as HBO’s corporate overlord WarnerMedia slaps the letters of its most prestigious brand on its new streaming service HBO Max, it’s worth asking if this time we really are seeing the beginning of the end.
As Primetimer’s Josh Zyber spelled out earlier, the streaming service launching today called “HBO Max” is really just “HBO plus a bunch of other channels we own.” As WarnerMedia executive Kevin Reilly made clear in January, when rolling out HBO Max to TV critics, there will be a very intentional blurring of lines between the offerings of HBO, TNT, Adult Swim, Crunchyroll, Friends, Two and a Half Men, and anything else Warner’s content editors happen to pull off the shelf.
“It will be a deep experience and a broad experience, a lot to choose from,” said Reilly — more than 10,000 hours’ worth, in fact, when all WarnerMedia properties are accounted for. He added, “We're going to try to help you navigate it with a little bit of, as we call it, human curation.”
Well, thanks, I appreciate that, but the first three letters on your sign are H-B-O. When you say “HBO Max,” I’m thinking you’re going to give me more shows that scream HBO! HBO! Because even after all these years, and all the competition from the likes of Netflix, Hulu, AMC, and FX, there’s nothing quite like an HBO show.
According to research, reruns of Game of Thrones — not the overhyped, overrated Friends — are what viewers are really looking forward to watching on HBO Max. Friends is what happens when you do the same thing over and over and get lucky. HBO programs are what you get when a network looking to do something truly different invests in talent. You get David Simon and Lisa Joy. You get season one of The Leftovers, to say nothing of season three. I love Hasan Minhaj’s show, but he’s practically invisible on Netflix. On HBO, Bill Maher and John Oliver have huge megaphones for their brand of topical comedy.
There have been worries about WarnerMedia’s oversight of HBO — many longtime executives have departed, budgets reassigned, corporate roles restructured. The good news is that Kevin Reilly and his minions know that HBO is the golden goose and it needs to keep laying golden eggs because no one is going to pay $15 a month for Rick & Morty.
“There's certain products that are priced aspirationally and that's because they seem to be worth it,” Reilly told me. “That’s the way HBO always has been.” But here’s the rub: HBO isn’t TV, but in the Peak TV era, TV isn’t TV anymore. It’s a screenful of apps, and each app represents a catalog of thousands of viewing choices. Some of those apps are adding subscribers by the millions. Know who’s losing subscribers by the millions? Channels that rely on cable. And COVID-19 is only accelerating cable's demise. The Last Dance, indeed.
Thirty million customers pay $15 a month to get plain old HBO on plain old cable. If those people cut cable, are they going to figure out how to get HBO Go, or do they just disappear off the books? So I get why HBO, which already has too much stuff on it already, must now take on tenfold more content, a lot of which would have no business airing on HBO.
The downside is that, as any marketer will tell you, confusing messages kill. So, it’s not just HBO but it’s still $15 a month and I don’t have to have cable? Great, because I’ve got this Roku box … excuse me? Oh, I see. Well, how about Amazon Fire? No???
Those distribution wrinkles will get ironed out over time. What nobody knows is if HBO — a destination channel and tastemaker for two generations of viewers — will simply get swallowed up in the sea of content offerings from discordant brands. This is the same problem FX’s John Landgraf is facing as his brand gets slowly assimilated into the Disney borg. But HBO isn’t Disney. HBO is HBO. It’s a special place we used to go to escape from everyday TV. For how much longer, nobody knows.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.