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.

More Voices

  • Deadwood HBO

    Netflix, HBO Get Ready to Rumble as Emmy Nominations and Phase 2 of Voting Loom

    Last year, Netflix ended HBO’s 17-year Emmy-nomination domination, posting 112 nods overall (to HBO’s 108), continuing the service’s miraculous rise. Now comes the next goal, which may be in reach this year: Surpassing HBO’s all-time record. HBO earned 126 nominations in 2015, its all-time best and a number that Netflix could hit this year. It’s [...]

  • Ellen Sitcom Original TV Show

    GLAAD Chief: Hollywood Needs to Continue Playing a Role in LGBTQ Progress

    This Pride Month is not only about celebrating — it’s also about reflecting how far LGBTQ acceptance has come since the Stonewall riots catalyzed the LGBTQ movement 50 years ago, and about honoring the trailblazers and leaders who propelled LGBTQ visibility and issues forward in what many social justice experts describe as relatively lightning speed.   [...]

  • Matthew Shepard MOth Judy LGBT Activist

    Matthew Shepard's Mother: Why Hate Crime Is Only Conquered When We Speak Up

    In January, “Empire” star Jussie Smollett reported a violent attack at the hands of two men outside his Chicago apartment building. Local police and prosecutors said Smollett fabricated the event, which the actor still vehemently denies. More than a dozen criminal charges, including falsifying a police report, were filed and later dropped by state attorneys. [...]

  • Stonewall Riots 50 Years Later

    What the Stonewall Riots Mean 50 Years Later

    For one to fully understand the impact of the Stonewall riots, it is important to comprehend the darkness that LGBTQ Americans faced every day of their lives in the years leading up to Stonewall. Allow me to take you back to the 1950s and ’60s, when I was coming of age as a closeted gay [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content