“The goal is to become HBO faster than HBO can become me.”
It is Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos 2013, just before his company made the leap to original content with Tower of cards. And not just the original content – great, high-budget content made by a famous director, with (at the time) a famous actor. HBO style content.
Even if you don’t follow the media business closely, you probably know what happened after that: With Tower of cards, Netflix has proven, pretty quickly, that it can make shows as good as the things that the legendary pay TV network does. And then Netflix started producing a lot more stuff, and consumers liked that too. And now Netflix is a company like any other a media company wants to emulate itself – and that is the main reason why every big media company is trying to decide whether to buy or sell to any other large media company.
But it didn’t have to go that way. In 2005, two years before Netflix entered the streaming business, some HBO executives forced the company to do the same thing. They wanted HBO to use the internet to sell subscriptions directly to consumers instead of selling its products wholesale to large cable TV distributors.
A year later, after conveying the idea, HBO considered another move that would rewrite media history: some of its executives wanted HBO to buy Netflix, which at the time was a mail-renting DVD business worth about a billion dollars.
Netflix is now worth about $ 300 billion. And HBO, which didn’t start selling its own A service similar to Netflix by 2015, it is under pressure to keep up with not only Netflix but also a host of streaming competitors such as Disney +, Peacock and Amazon Prime Video. Meanwhile, HBO’s parent company has changed three times in the last three years.
Both of these HBO decision-making stories, which I’ve never seen published before, appear in Tinderbox: HBO’s relentless search for new frontiers, a new book on the oral history of journalist James Andrew Miller, who previously dealt with major media institutions such as ESPN i Saturday Night Live. The book is a 50-year-old story that is partly a behind-the-scenes look at shows that change games made by HBO like Game of Thrones, and in part the history of HBO behind the scenes, which has plenty GOT-like a plot twist. I talked to Miller about all this this week Recode Media episode, which you can listen to at the bottom of this post or on the podcast platform of your choice.
But as captivating as Miller’s stories are, you don’t want to overload the alternative histories they can generate.
Even if HBO and Time Warner, its parent company, then decided in 2005 to start selling HBO’s program directly to consumers, it might not have been successful. At the time, most American homes still did not have broadband. More importantly, the cable television industry that HBO relied on for its distribution would then struggle hard not to be displaced.
And buying Netflix in 2006 would not guarantee that HBO would eventually own Netflix today. If nothing else, when Netflix was part of a large entertainment conglomerate, it would surely have made different decisions than when it was a small player trying to figure out how to compete with entertainment conglomerates.
Yet the stories Miller reveals in his book are useful reminders that the narratives we often hear about media history – or any history – are just that: narratives, which are usually cleansed and simplified, depending on who tells them.
In this case, HBO and Time Warner are often portrayed as clumsy dinosaurs of the big media blinded by the future. And the fact that he is an ex Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes made an effort to talk about both Netflix and increase in cable cutting, when both were on the rise, helps strengthen the argument. But the fact that at least some HBO executives could see what would happen to their industry complicates things: should they get credit for their insight, even if they can’t act accordingly?
Speaking of Bewkes, who is treated pretty well in Miller’s book: He says he also understood by 2014 what Netflix and the rest of the technology business were doing to his company, even if he didn’t say it publicly: “We would either have to buy or merge with to some to get what we need to compete with the digital giants, or, if that fails, sell Time Warner. … I told the board that in the long run, Google, Facebook, Netflix, Amazon and maybe Apple will destroy all media companies. ”
Bewkes even argued combining his company with Apple, but in his story, Apple wasn’t ready for it: “I wish we could have done it.”