As ‘Thrones’ comes roaring back, HBO retrenches online


Ever since HBO announced the premiere for season seven of “Game of Thrones” with a Facebook video of ice melting, the cable network has spared no expense promoting the return of the violent epic.

But amid the billboards, bus signs and glossy magazine covers featuring stars Kit Harington and Emilia Clarke, you won’t hear much mention of HBO Now, the network’s two-year-old streaming service and answer to Netflix. Time Warner Inc.’s cable network has scaled back its ambitions for the $14.99-a-month service.

Since HBO Now’s “transformative” debut, as network Chief Executive Officer Richard Plepler put it two years ago, the highly profitable cable programmer has dropped plans to make original shows specifically for online audiences, retooled its subscriber marketing and deepened ties to pay-TV companies like Comcast Corp. and AT&T Inc., its soon-to-be owner.

“The original intention was to create specialized content to get a portion of those folks that had cut the cord or shaved the cord to come back on and watch the platform online,” said David Miller, an analyst with Loop Capital.

HBO Now is hardly a failure. Almost 3.5 million subscribers have signed up, according to a person familiar with the matter who asked not to be identified. That’s more than most streaming services offered by TV companies, like CBS Corp.’s online extensions of CBS and Showtime. But it’s growing more slowly than Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, the leaders in paid, online TV, despite having one of the most popular shows in the world.

Leading up to and following the debut of HBO Now, Plepler signed deals with writers, producers and on-air personalities. Vice Media Inc. was hired to produce a daily news show for younger audiences. Bill Simmons, the most popular sportswriter in the U.S., would host a talk show. Late night’s Jon Stewart would produce short-form content. Sesame Street moved over from PBS.

Simmons was going to produce short-form videos like he had at ESPN, then-programming chief Michael Lombardo said at the time. HBO could upload Vice videos to HBO Now at any time of day, Plepler said. Stewart made a deal specifically for short-form content, starting with animation. After 16 years hosting “The Daily Show,” Stewart had no interest in more.

“Appearing on television 22 minutes a night clearly broke me,” Stewart said in a release at the time. “I’m pretty sure I can produce a few minutes of content every now and again.”

While all of those deals were made with HBO Now in mind, the network couldn’t offer any exclusively online because of commitments to pay-TV operators.

Though the Vice show lives on, the other plans were scrapped. Stewart’s animated show was called off, and there’s no word on whether they will do anything together. Simmons never produced much short-form, and his relationship with HBO soured after the departure of Lombardo and the abrupt cancellation of his show. His lone project remaining with HBO is a documentary about Andre the Giant, the late wrestler.

Simmons’s company produces a talk show about “Game of Thrones.” While AMC has championed a similar show for “The Walking Dead,” HBO opted not to offer a second season of the “Thrones” show and let Simmons take it to Twitter.

Pay-TV operators may have also had a hand in HBO’s online retreat, including AT&T, which owns DirecTV and is buying Time Warner for $85.4 billion. Distributors like Comcast were upset that TV networks, their primary partners, were creating services explicitly for people who don’t pay for cable. HBO was copying Netflix, which pay-TV operators believed was encouraging people to cancel their cable subscriptions.

After criticizing pay-TV distributors for their reluctance to sell HBO Now, Plepler has deepened ties with traditional partners, signing new deals with Comcast, AT&T and Charter Communications Inc. that created new incentives for those companies to sign up new HBO subscribers.

The company has also turned to newer distributors as key marketing partners for the online service. Type HBO Now in a web browser, and you’ll be directed to Apple’s App Store, Google Play, Amazon and Roku. Amazon in particular has been a boon for HBO, Plepler has said.

HBO views the new season of “Game of Thrones” as a draw for the network, wherever audiences choose to watch it — on live TV, on-demand through pay-TV operators or online. HBO Now is one part of that offering, instead of the “transformative” product Plepler heralded in 2015.

“They realized that, you know, content is king and great content ports itself very easily across multiple platforms,” said analyst Miller.