Don’t jump to the conclusion that Time Warner just fulfilled cord cutters’ dreams. In his Investor Day presentation to Wall Street today, HBO chief Richard Plepler said that his unit will launch a stand-alone service next year — meaning it will be available online to people who don’t buy pay TV. But he carefully avoided saying what programming HBO will offer, who will be able to receive it, and how much it will cost. Nor did execs seem to have abandoned their view that the best way for HBO to grow is to collaborate with cable companies to sign up the millions of customers who don’t subscribe to the premium channel.
This isn’t to minimize the significance of today’s news. CFO Howard Averill said today that the online plan “will meaningfully accelerate HBO revenue” and could result in “hundreds of millions in additional profit.” The company set the bar, and now has to cross it.
And listeners could be forgiven if they assumed that Time Warner has become fed up with cable. “Some of our partners are doing a great job marketing HBO, others not so much,” Plepler said today. “We have been far too reliant on our operators to market HBO.” Indeed, he announced that the company will launch its own marketing campaign – first time it has done that independently for about two decades. What’s more, he says, “there are hundreds of millions of dollars that our partners are not sharing with us.…We will get our take.” Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes seemed equally frustrated by cable operators’ lackadaisical rollout Of TV Everywhere streaming opportunities. “The tech company world has turned it on faster and better….We challenge [cable operators] again today and invite them to do it. We’re saying today, we’re also going to do it.”
But that may be saber rattling, as opposed to a declaration of war against cable. Plepler emphasized that HBO wants to tap the 10M homes that subscribe to broadband, but not pay TV. “That is a large and growing opportunity that should no longer be left untapped,” he said. In announcing his new online initiative he added that HBO “will work with our current partners” – cable and satellite providers – but will merely “explore models with new partners.” Later, in response to a question, the HBO chief said that he had talked to most of the major cable companies and the message he heard was that “they’re going to lean into having their broadband make money with us.”
Bewkes also stood by his oft-stated view that pay-TV subscribers like the programming bundle because it’s “a huge value to people.” He also refused to side with Netflix and other online services when asked whether he now supports the kinds of net neutrality regulations that might protect his Web initiatives. Online video creates strains for Internet providers, he says, and that “has to be supported economically in some fashion.”
Bewkes and Plepler want to reassure investors who like Time Warner because it’s part of a programming oligopoly that can raise prices almost at will, and require millions of people to pay for channels that they don’t watch. They want peace, not war.