Time Warner’s CEO Jeff Bewkes said on this morning’s earnings call that HBO Now has passed the 2 million subscriber mark. That would be an increase from the 800K HBO Now had at the end of 2015.
On the one hand, gaining 2 million subscribers since launching HBO Now in April, 2015 is a positive sign of market acceptance for the SVOD service, which entered the market relatively late. But on the other hand, the pace of HBO Now’s monthly subscriber additions seems static, suggesting the service has not been able to accelerate its momentum.
HBO Now’s 800K gain in 2015 translates to approximately 90K monthly subscriber additions. If HBO Now added another 1.2 million subscribers in the 13 months since (1/1/16 to 1/31/17 as I assume Bewkes was giving the most up-to-date number this morning), to get to the 2 million point, then its subscriber acquisition pace in this period was just over 92K/month. While we don’t know the exact monthly totals to detect specific trends, the overall 90K-92K monthly pace is relatively static since initial launch.
To put this number in perspective, in basically the same period (4/1/15 to 12/31/16), Netflix added 8.03 million domestic subscribers, or over 382K/month, more than 4x HBO Now’s pace. And remember that Netflix had 40 million U.S. subscribers at the end of Q1 ’15 so the law of large numbers was working against Netflix, whereas HBO Now was a brand-new service, unlocking its vault of incredible shows for standalone access for the first time.
In addition to Netflix, Amazon is also experiencing torrid growth in video. While we don’t know how many of Amazon’s Prime subscribers watch video, a survey from last summer indicated 75% of them did at the time. Amazon has continued to invest heavily in video and has done well with awards, bringing even more visibility.
As I wrote in December, on balance, it feels like HBO Now is losing ground to both Netflix and Amazon, even as the landscape for high-quality original TV shows and talent (HBO’s bread and butter differentiator for years) has gotten intensively competitive.
No doubt there are lots of contributors to HBO Now’s situation, but I think the biggest is that, at $14.99/month, HBO Now looks expensive in comparison to other SVOD options, most notably Netflix’s ‘Basic’ level which is just $7.99/month, essentially half the price of HBO Now. With its high price point, HBO Now continues to pursue a market skimming pricing strategy while its competitors are instead aggressively pursuing market share, albeit at the expense of their profit margins.
Of course HBO is in a delicate position with pricing HBO Now because it doesn’t want to undercut its traditional pay-TV distributors, on whom it still relies for the vast majority of its revenue from the core HBO service. But this allegiance to existing partners is preventing HBO Now from being able to compete fully with SVOD alternatives. Needless to say it’s a conundrum without any easy answers.
Meanwhile, with Netflix and Amazon pursuing global strategies, the stakes are changing, as content investments can be amortized over far larger and more diverse subscriber bases. With each passing month, Netflix and Amazon are getting stronger, while HBO Now continues its modest growth. Though HBO’s platinum reputation for programming quality remains intact, without a globally-scaled direct-to-consumer business, it’s ultimately hard to envision how HBO doesn’t lose some of power.
If AT&T’s acquisition gets approved (still a big if), one of the big questions AT&T management will face is which path to pursue with HBO Now - price more aggressively to gain share, or pursue the status quo and risk losing ground?