The moment HBO entered my life was unforgettable. It was the early ‘80s when my parents first got a subscription, but I can still vividly remember watching the intro sequence for the first time; that iconic, 3-letter block flying through a fantastical cityscape before taking off into the night sky—a clear metaphor, thinking back now, of reaching for the stars.
That future-facing swagger remains firmly intact today, and it would be tempting to say that HBO is currently enjoying a renaissance. Indeed, the network now has over 28 million subscribers, adding 190,000 in the fourth quarter of last year alone.
But when you really think about it, has the brand ever not been in its heyday? From the original mind-blowing concept of possessing a “box office” in your home, to the current novelty of having access to its entire library of original content at your fingertips whenever and wherever you desire (HBO GO), the promise of possibility has always been a constant for HBO customers.
More importantly, content has always been king at the network, leading to a jaw-dropping track record for world-class original programming, from The Sopranos and Sex and the City to Game of Thrones and Girls. What’s even more impressive is that the network has built itself into such a mighty entertainment brand in an environment of profound and constant threats including piracy, eroding business models and a saturated media market.
This puts HBO in an enviable, if not somewhat daunting, position. Despite insisting that it will not be offering HBO GO to non-subscribers anytime soon, the service certainly looks like the perfect prototype for an unbundled, cableless a-la-carte future of television that experts all predict.
But at a $5mil-per-episode production tab, Game of Thrones ain’t paying for itself. So would risking it all now by walking away from its lucrative cable fee stream and venturing into the economically unproven territory of a standalone offering be a noble move? Or would it actually be irresponsible considering everything the brand has worked so hard to build? When a commitment to innovation has already been amply proven, can’t leaders sometimes just act like, well, leaders?
Several months ago, when it surfaced that the mistreatment of horses on the set of Luck had led to several horse deaths, HBO avoided any negative publicity by swiftly cancelling the new show. Clearly, these are not the actions of a company doing whatever it wants, but a leader in complete control of its brand and its fate.
On the flip side, if and when a proven “media exchange”-type model does materialize, where consumers can choose individual entertainment “packages” instead subsidizing the existence of hundreds of channels they have no use for, brand differentiation will be paramount for driving choice.
And which entertainment brand is best-positioned for this brave new world? You guessed it. Sometimes being ahead of the curve simply means playing the game perfectly. And if history is any indicator, HBO knows exactly what it’s doing.
Andreas Ruggie is an associate strategist for the Siegel+Gale New York office.