Netflix Joins List of Upstarts Yapping at HBO’s Heels

Pay service's strong year somewhat lost amid challenge from growing roster of rivals seeking its crown

Poor HBO. If it wasn’t for the billion or so in annual profit and glittering array of stars beating a path to its door with pet projects, you could almost feel sorry for the channel.

At first blush, HBO has just come off a pretty scintillating season. “Game of Thrones” has broken out ratings-wise, “Girls” continues to enjoy an out-sized footprint in the elite zeitgeist and the channel’s movies (a la “Behind the Candelabra”) have generated considerable attention, all helping the service garner the most Emmy nominations (108) in a decade. Moreover, the pay cabler has continued to cultivate goodwill from the press and emphasize reviews in a way the broadcast networks have long since downplayed.

And yet, at its TV Critics Assn. tour presentation, one of the topics that inevitably came up was Netflix, inasmuch as the distribution service has taken a page from HBO’s playbook by using prestige items, most notably “House of Cards,” to hook viewers and (perhaps even more so) dazzle the media.

Admittedly, Netflix is hardly the first to try walking in HBO’s shoes, merely migrating the challenge into a new realm. Showtime already stole some of its rival’s thunder with last year’s Emmy breakthrough for “Homeland,” while a select handful of basic and pay networks have sought to brand themselves through award-courting fare as well.

“We have been engaged in competition for the whole history of our network,” HBO CEO Richard Plepler told reporters Thursday, adding that the service lives “very comfortably amidst competition.”

In response to a question, HBO programming chief Michael Lombardo called Netflix’s decision not to release viewing data “curious,” while noting raw tonnage is hardly an accurate measure of how pay TV measures success. “We’re in the passion-engagement game,” he said, nicely defining the multiplier effect of something like “Girls” or “The Newsroom.”

Still, for HBO the sensation of having these upstarts or relative newcomers yap at its heels has to be similar to how the broadcast networks felt as HBO began to siphon away attention from them — as in, “Hey, these guys do one or two shows and you’re suddenly comparing them with everything we offer?”

Then again, such is the lot of mature businesses, especially during periods of tumult and change. And as the character of Joffrey and some of the other “Game of Thrones” denizens could readily attest, sometimes, uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.

Popular on Variety

More Voices

  • Fleabag Succession Emmys

    Could 'Fleabag' and 'Succession' Be Spoilers on Emmy Night? (Column)

    At the onset, this year’s Emmy Awards felt a bit anticlimactic, as the final seasons of “Game of Thrones” and “Veep” appeared to have this year’s drama and comedy categories locked up before campaigning even began. But that’s how upsets happen: Just when we’re pretty confident about how things might go, a couple of wild [...]

  • Climate Mobilization

    Marshall Herskovitz: Why the Climate Crisis Needs Movie Marketing-Style Muscle

     I’ve lived inside the climate-communications conundrum for 20 years, working with scientists, academics and activists to find ways to convince Americans that something they couldn’t see or feel was nevertheless a looming catastrophe worth upending their lives to fight. Now the climate crisis is undeniable, and we are finally seeing the beginnings of concerted action. [...]

  • Renée Zellweger, Adam Driver Gain Oscar

    Telluride: Oscar Buzz Builds For Renée Zellweger, Adam Driver and 'The Two Popes'

    This year’s Telluride Film Festival began on Thursday with the Guest/Patron Brunch on a private estate about a 30-minute drive from the center of town. Eggs, bacon and fruit salad were being served as the sun was shining on Martin Scorsese, Adam Driver, Noah Baumbach, Laura Dern, Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Ken Burns, Ric Burns, [...]

  • Fernando Meirelles The Two Popes

    Telluride: Audience Laughs and Cries During 'The Two Popes' World Premiere

    Little did the audience at the world premiere of “The Two Popes” know that the papal two-hander is actually very funny. No, it’s not a comedy, but the jokes and ribbing between Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) and the future pope, Cardinal Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce), played well in the packed Chuck Jones’ Cinema, as did [...]

  • Renee Zwllweger in Judy

    Telluride: Renée Zellweger Will Return to the Oscars With 'Judy'

    The Oscars love actors playing alcoholic, drug-addicted singers. Last year, Rami Malek took home the big prize for his portrayal of Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” beating out Bradley Cooper for his work as the fictional Jackson Maine in “A Star Is Born.” Over the years, we’ve seen Jamie Foxx win for “Ray,” Jeff Bridges [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content