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AT&T’s plan for HBO sounds as bad as its one for your phone

Why The Night King on this post? It’s just because Game Of Thrones airs on HBO—no other reason.
Photo: HBO

AT&T recently purchased Time Warner for $85.4 billion, which means the conglomerate that can’t seem to use its vast resources to beam a reliable signal to your smartphone is now also in charge of a storied movie studio, the Justice League, and the TV destination where millions of Americans wind down their weekends with fantasy epics, groundbreaking comedies where the characters can cuss, and a cautionary tale about corporate overreach in which the sins of the nation’s past are recreated and reenacted with the help of expensive-yet-interchangeable digital assets.

Apparently that last bit sounds pretty good to the Britta of telecommunications, as The New York Times reports that HBO’s first meeting with its new telephone and telegraph overlords included a mandate to get “bigger and broader” in order to survive in a shifting and uncertain time for media. In leaked audio from the June 19 town hall, seasoned AT&T executive and newly minted CEO of Warner Media John Stankey laid out a vision for HBO that doesn’t sound like HBO at all, but does sound a hell of a lot like Netflix’s method of flooding its subscribers feeds with content—though neither Stankey nor HBO chief Richard Plepler invoked the streaming service’s name during their chat at the channel’s New York headquarters.


Here’s some representative, meaningless exec-speak from Stankey:

“I want more hours of engagement. Why are more hours of engagement important? Because you get more data and information about a customer that then allows you to do things like monetize through alternate models of advertising as well as subscriptions, which I think is very important to play in tomorrow’s world.”

Cool. Monetize Through Alternate Models Of Advertising, airing this fall after Insecure.

Stankey—a man who, while testifying in the AT&T-Time Warner antitrust trial, looked forward to the “expense savings” of the merger by saying “[if you] have two accountants and only need one, a body comes out of that”—laid out a strategy that would have HBO’s original programming spread out from its usual Sunday-night hub, abandoning the quality-over-quantity approach that has reaped armfuls of Emmys and critical accolades since The Larry Sanders Show debuted in 1992. It’s all part of a “Phase 1: Collect underpants. Phase 2: ? Phase 3: Profit” plan to grow HBO’s revenues, expand its subscription base, and stay competitive with the Silicon Valley bulldozers currently reshaping the TV landscape. This is all overlooking the fact that those aren’t exactly areas where the premium cable channel is hurting. But Netflix is out there with impressive numbers and growth, spending $8 billion to spray spaghetti at the wall while little ol’ HBO only allocates a measly $2 billion to original programming like Game Of Thrones, Westworld, and Sharp Objects.


Look: HBO isn’t perfect, and its habit of working with the same, limited pool of creators isn’t either: Sometimes you get The Deuce, other times you get Here And Now. This wouldn’t be the first seismic shift for its original programming, which, once upon a time, was more 1st & Ten and Arli$$ than The Sopranos and Sex And The City. And TV was, is, and will always be a negotiation between art and commerce. Chasing after what’s been successful for the other guy is the opposite of the strategy that’s paid off creative and commercial dividends for HBO for the past quarter century—when other broadcasters have gone that route, HBO is often “the other guy” in that equation.

With Starz building a solid stable on the backs of Outlander and Power, and Showtime shoring up its comedy brand with Sacha Baron Cohen and Desus and Mero, now’s probably the wrong time for Plepler to abandon a proven, relatively sound approach. But Stankey doesn’t see those channels as HBO’s adversaries: “You are competing with devices that sit in people’s hands that capture their attention every 15 minutes.” But if Stankey’s bosses at AT&T are so concerned with phones, maybe they should make sure they can receive a goddamn call every once in a while.


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Erik Adams

Managing editor, The A.V. Club