It’s remarkable that HBO is able to confidently point its cross-hairs at online video juggernaut Netflix on the success of a soap that counts vampires, faeries, and werewolves among its primary plot devices. But that’s exactly what may have taken HBOGo.com–the pay-cable net’s online on-demand video service–from niche site to potential market disruptor.
Last night, True Blood–one of HBO’s unlikeliest crown jewels lately–debuted strong, creating a fair amount of Twitter buzz. As with most past episodes of the soap, the season four premiere ended with a number of cliffhangers. This, in turned, created a lot of buzz. And where most networks fail to create a lucrative call-to-action on the buzz generated from a solid cliffhanger (voting on “Nedna” on The Simpsons, anybody?), HBO did something pretty smart: They generated a boatload of publicity for HBOGo.com on the back of the premiere’s buzz. The pay-cable net served the next episode immediately–and exclusively–on the website. Rather than being served ads, which would have limited long-term returns, users were being sold on a new product (HBOGo.com) in exchange for immediate gratification.
In fact, the success of HBOGo.com had already been building and serving True Blood‘s next episode a week early directly on the service (and through its related mobile apps) only bolstered the service’s success. It’s also success that has been cemented because unlike the broadcast networks, HBO didn’t fear Netflix.
So where does the “Netflix-killing” part of HBOGo.com come in? While Netflix offers a wealth of content for instant online viewing, the advantage that HBO is counting on to surpass Netflix is viewer preference for great content. Quality over quantity. By never licensing shows like Sex & the City and Six Feet Under to outlets like Netflix (or Hulu), HBO has managed to do what the broadcast monoliths are still grappling with: Get viewers to follow them as they shift from offline to online distribution.
In all fairness, HBOGo.com probably won’t kill Netflix–or it has a long way to go before such a move could be considered–but should it ever entertain a pricing model for users who don’t subscribe to their channel, let alone cable television, it would give them a considerable edge. The existence of a portal like HBOGo.com already makes Netflix, with its notably lackluster instant play library, appear dated and could easily start nibbling away at its marketshare.
But what both Netflix and the Big 4 networks licensing content to Netflix should be concerned about is that with the HBO-HBOGo.com tag-team, the pay-cable net is doing something remarkable. It’s adding toll gates to every possible avenue its content can be accessed through, retaining all the revenue, and curiously, not alienating any viewers in the process.