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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.

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