“The goal is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us.”
That’s Netflix government Ted Sarandos in 2013, shortly earlier than his firm made its bounce into authentic content material with House of Cards. And not simply authentic content material — shiny big-budget content material made by a well-known director, that includes (on the time) a well-known actor. HBO-style content material.
Even in the event you don’t comply with the media enterprise carefully, you most likely know what occurred after that: With House of Cards, Netflix proved, fairly shortly, that it may make reveals pretty much as good because the stuff the fabled pay TV community makes. And then Netflix began making much more stuff, and customers favored that, too. And now Netflix is the corporate that each different media firm needs to emulate — and it’s the chief motive each massive media firm is attempting to resolve whether or not it wants to purchase or promote to each different massive media firm.
But it didn’t need to go that approach. In 2005, two years earlier than Netflix bought into the streaming enterprise, some HBO executives have been pushing the corporate to do the identical factor. They wished HBO to make use of the web to promote subscriptions on to customers as an alternative of wholesaling their product to the massive cable TV distributors.
A 12 months later, after passing on that concept, HBO thought-about one other transfer that might have rewritten media historical past: Some of its executives wished HBO to purchase Netflix, which on the time was a DVD rent-by-mail enterprise price round $1 billion.
Netflix is now price some $300 billion. And HBO, which didn’t begin promoting its personal Netflix-like service till 2015, is below strain to maintain up with not solely Netflix however a number of streaming rivals, like Disney+, Peacock, and Amazon Prime Video. Meanwhile, HBO’s mum or dad firm has modified thrice within the final three years.
Both of these tales about HBO’s non-decisions, which I’ve by no means seen reported earlier than, seem in Tinderbox: HBO’s Ruthless Pursuit of New Frontiers, a brand new oral historical past e-book by journalist James Andrew Miller, who has beforehand tackled massive media establishments like ESPN and Saturday Night Live. The e-book is a 50-year story that’s partly a behind-the-scenes have a look at game-changing reveals made by HBO like Game of Thrones, and partly a behind-the-scenes historical past of HBO, which has loads of GOT-like plot twists. I talked to Miller about all of it on this week’s Recode Media episode, which you’ll take heed to on the backside of this publish or on the podcast platform of your selection.
But as eyebrow-raising as Miller’s tales are, you don’t wish to obese the choice histories they’ll generate.
Even if HBO and Time Warner, its mum or dad firm in 2005, had determined to start out promoting HBO’s programming on to customers again then, it could not have been profitable. At the time, most US houses nonetheless didn’t have broadband web. More importantly, the cable TV business HBO relied on for its distribution again then would have fought exhausting to verify it didn’t get displaced.
And shopping for Netflix in 2006 wouldn’t have assured that HBO would have ended up proudly owning the corporate Netflix is at the moment. If something, as soon as Netflix was half of a big leisure conglomerate, it will definitely have made completely different choices than it did when it was a small participant attempting to determine find out how to compete with leisure conglomerates.
Still, the tales Miller uncovers in his e-book are helpful reminders that narratives we regularly hear about media historical past — or any historical past — are simply that: narratives, which are likely to get cleaned up and simplified, relying on who’s telling them.
In this case, HBO and Time Warner usually get painted as lumbering Big Media Dinosaurs who bought blindsided by the longer term. And the truth that former Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes went out of his solution to speak down each Netflix and the rise of cable cord-cutting, when each have been on the rise, helps strengthen the argument. But the truth that no less than some HBO executives may see what was going to occur to their business does complicate issues: Should they get credit score for his or her perception, even when they couldn’t act on it?
Speaking of Bewkes, who will get handled fairly nicely in Miller’s e-book: He says that by 2014, he additionally understood what Netflix and the remainder of the expertise enterprise have been doing to his firm, even when he wasn’t saying it publicly: “We would either have to acquire or merge with somebody to get what we needed to compete with the digital giants, or, failing that, sell Time Warner. … I told the board that longer term, Google, Facebook, Netflix, Amazon and maybe Apple are going to hollow out all the media companies.”
Bewkes even mentioned combining his firm with Apple, however in his telling, Apple wasn’t up for it: “I wish we’d been able to do that.”