For years, the halo around premium cablers such as HBO and Showtime has been integral to their branding. Their parent companies in a past life — Time Warner and CBS, respectively — seemed to be content with the tens of millions of subscribers each had accumulated. But now, shepherded by new corporate owners — AT&T’s WarnerMedia and ViacomCBS — each appears to be welcoming new ways to use their household names to attract a wider audience.
On ViacomCBS’ first earnings call as a newly merged company, chief exec Bob Bakish laid out plans on Feb. 20 to synergize some of the conglomerate’s entertainment brands. VH1’s popular “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars,” for example, will air a new season first on Showtime, the network that’s home to “Shameless,” “Homeland” and “Billions.”
Bakish called Showtime, which has more than 27 million linear and streaming subscribers, a “powerful, important brand with culture-defining hits, but a business that consumes significant working capital in 2019. … But by shifting some of the content mix, including through new users of ViacomCBS brands, we can attract subscribers in a more cost-effective way.”
In other words, it’s expensive to maintain a premium cabler that offers prestige programming, and ViacomCBS wants to add subscribers without ramping up its investment in content creation. Bakish believes the addition of “Drag Race,” with its large and loyal following, will increase Showtime’s appeal, although it’s a strategy that has raised some eyebrows.
“I worry about Showtime because I think they’re kind of stuck in the middle,” MoffettNathanson analyst Michael Nathanson tells Variety. The channel isn’t as pricey as HBO, but “certainly isn’t cheap” either. He says he isn’t sure that unscripted Viacom content will drive people to a premium bundle. Netflix relies on pumping up its content volume, while Disney has a strong brand. Showtime is trying a different method, one that Nathanson isn’t certain will be effective.
Wells Fargo equity analyst Steven Cahall echoes that concern. “While this might make sense given the crowded market
for scripted originals, it also devalues our view [of] cable networks,” he writes in a research note. “Showtime could find itself over-distributed and/or over-monetized, much like we’ve recently seen at [Lionsgate-owned] Starz.”
By contrast, HBO — the gold standard of premium cable brands — has in recent years increased its investment in content, and seems set to maintain the style of programming that has given the network its halo. At the same time, it also has lent its name to HBO Max, the wide-ranging, something-for-everyone streaming service that will include HBO, TNT, TBS and Cartoon Network, among other brands.
At the Television Critics Assn. press tour in January, HBO programming chief Casey Bloys dismissed concerns of brand dilution. “Ultimately, it’s another way for people to get HBO, so that is a good thing — it allows us to continue to do what we do best,” he told Variety. “I know there’s a lot of hand-wringing now about it, and I understand it, but I think we’re talking about a theoretical, and it’s probably better to wait and see how consumers feel about [HBO Max] when it actually launches.”
For those watching from Wall Street, what’s happening at ViacomCBS is of more immediate concern. The idea of shifting more content from the other Viacom realms raises concerns for Bernstein analyst Todd Juenger, who points out the difficulty in trying to drive growth without investment.
“It also seems clear that part of maximizing content value across the new combined portfolio will include a focus on more sharing of content/brands across different services within the company, and more willingness to license brands outside the company,” he wrote. “All of which raises issues of cannibalization, and loss of exclusivity.
“For instance, an MVPD [that’s] justifying a certain rate paid to VH1 and Logo (which already share the program) partly because of the popularity of ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ will not be happy to find a new, special series of that program debuting first on Showtime before coming to those networks. That directly decreases the value of those networks.”
What’s clear at this stage is what isn’t working, due to a combination of cord-cutting and viewers trying to save money on subscription video-on-demand services.
Says Nathanson: “The model of finding linear premium subscribers through traditional bundles, working with cable/satellite distributors — that model’s broken.”