Tuesday, January 22, 2008, 9:59 AM ET|Posted by Will Richmond
The unveiling of HBO's broadband video strategy provides fresh evidence that the 3 major premium cable channels - HBO, Showtime and Starz - are pursuing 3 very different paths in navigating the broadband world.
These 3 channels have traditionally been tight-knit partners with cable operators who leveraged these channels' brands and programming relentlessly in marketing campaigns to gain new revenues and subscribers. But operators' high margin digital services (e.g broadband access, phone, HD, VOD DVR) have lately become the primary focus of cable marketers' finite promotional power. Somewhat mitigating this shift has been powerful original programming, especially from HBO (The Sopranos, Sex and the City, etc.) that has often made these "must have" channels for audiences, helping build powerful consumer brands in the process.
Broadband delivery further scrambles the relationship between these 3 premium channels and their cable operator brethren. For the first time, the premium channels can promote their services, and even deliver them directly to consumers, all without cable operators' involvement. This newfound flexibility has led to 3 very different strategies that I would categorize as "Be bold" (Starz), "Be incremental" (Showtime) and "Be aligned" (HBO).
"Be bold" - Starz has pursued the boldest broadband strategy, launching Vongo, a pure broadband-delivered subscription service several years ago. Starz has invested heavily in making Vongo a top-notch user experience, including hundreds of hours of additional content specifically for the service. Starz has marketed Vongo directly to consumers and through non-cable industry distribution partnerships (e.g. HP, AT&T, Microsoft, Toshiba, Samsung, others). Starz is very clearly trying to grow the market for its programming.
Starz has sought cable operator partnerships as well, I believe correctly arguing that Vongo can be priced and packaged in a way that provides new value for subscribers as well as cable operators. These efforts have been stymied to date as reluctant operators perceive Vongo as possibly opening the door for Starz and others to gain direct access to subscribers, while also creating possible confusion around operators' budding VOD services.
"Be incremental" - Showtime has focused its broadband efforts on new revenue opportunities such as selling episodes through aggregators like iTunes, and also offering innovative new programming and features that capitalize on broadband's ability to directly interface with audiences. Two perfect examples of the latter are the "Dexter" parallel webisode series and season finale producers' video I have previously written about.
Showtime's goal is to create valuable exposure for its programming to non-subscribers on the bet that actual sampling is the best way to drive new subscriptions (in the past sampling was limited to cable operators' offering "preview weekends"). Showtime's "be incremental" approach studiously avoids creating conflicts with its cable operator partners, while not limiting the network's ability to harness broadband's potential.
"Be aligned" - HBO's belated entry into the broadband world is intended to support its cable partners by offering access to HBO Broadband to only those viewers who are both existing HBO subscribers AND cable broadband subscribers. This "value add" positioning is comparable in some ways to Netflix's "Watch Instantly" approach. They are both focused on giving existing subscribers more, not creating a distinct service, a la Vongo, aimed at expanding the market. Further, by limiting HBO Broadband's geographic rollout, HBO is taking an additionally cautious approach compared with the others. The HBO message is clear: we're staying strongly aligned with our traditional cable industry partners.
Three premium channels, three distinct broadband strategies. Further evidence that we currently live in a world of vast experimentation, with market participants focused on different goals and different ways of achieving them. I expect plenty more of this to come, as all players gather data about what works and what doesn't.
What do you think? Post a comment and let us all know!