Mobs of viewers had demanded it, so last year HBO took a bold step into the future of TV: The network giant would break from its cable-company leash and offer its goodies online for anyone, whether they subscribed to cable or not.
Now, nearly a year after HBO Now started streaming "Game of Thrones," "Veep" and other hits straight onto the Web, the first progress report is in — and some analysts are wondering where exactly all those mobs went.
About 800,000 subscribers have signed up for the $15-a-month streaming service since April, fewer than the 1 to 2 million analysts expected to see so far, forcing HBO's bosses this week into what amounted to a defensive crouch. "I wouldn't say only 800,000 HBO Now" subscriptions, HBO chief Richard Plepler told analysts Wednesday. "We're just getting started."
HBO's online push marked the first major charge of a TV titan onto the Web, upsetting the natural balance the network had gained through exclusive deals with cable companies in hopes of winning a vast new audience of cable-dodging "cord cutters" nationwide.
But HBO Now's slow start, after months of excitement, has left some in the media industry with a certain quiet anxiety. The billion-dollar question: If HBO can't persuade viewers to pay for online streaming, what hope is there for the other giants of traditional TV?
HBO and Time Warner, its corporate parent, have fought to depict the service's first year as a strong start, with Plepler saying, "We're very excited about where we are." For its first few months, HBO Now could only be used on Apple devices, and it has still yet to become available on Sony's PlayStation and Microsoft's Xbox consoles, which account for a fifth of HBO's online streaming (via an online portal for cable subscribers, called HBO Go).
The network said it plans to "step up" its marketing as HBO unloads a raft of new, original projects, including a "short-form digital content" deal with former "The Daily Show" host Jon Stewart, a talk show with former "Grantland" editor Bill Simmons, an updated "Sesame Street", and a daily news show with edgy millennial media giant Vice.
But HBO Now crept onto the Web with a whisper, when many expected a jolt. Last year, Plepler predicted HBO Now could pull in 4 to 5 million new customers and, in October, he called America's 10 million Internet-only households "low-hanging fruit" to which they could easily sell HBO's stream.
"That is a large and growing opportunity that should no longer be left untapped," Plepler said when unveiling the service in 2014. "There are 80 million homes that do not have HBO and we will use all means at our disposal to go after them."
The cable giant (slogan: "It's Not TV. It's HBO.") has long prided itself on being a canary in the coal mine for the broader TV business. The first "premium cable" network, it helped reinvent primetime drama with groundbreaking shows such as "Oz" and "The Sopranos." In the months after HBO Now premiered, networks including CBS and Showtime followed, with their own standalone streaming deals.
HBO today remains one of the most popular homes for buzzy and distinctive original franchises ("Girls," "Silicon Valley," "True Detective," "Last Week Tonight With John Oliver"). And as rival networks bleed customers, HBO maintains a strong fan base: The network has gained 20 percent of its audience base — 8 million new subscribers — in the last four years of its 44-year history. Nearly 3 million new U.S. subscribers tuned in last year alone.
But HBO Now's debut brought its own worries, both for HBO and the TV business at large: That longtime viewers would dump their cable package, cannibalizing HBO's business, or that the service would help rivals such as Netflix gain a newfound aggression, knowing that HBO's paying customers were open to shifting online.
HBO has waved off fears of cannibalization: Plepler said last August that less than 1 percent of HBO subscribers had dropped the bundle to sign up for HBO Now. But an obvious tension remains between HBO and the cable companies, which pay the cable giant a wholesale price to resell it to subscribers — and, in doing so, provide the vast majority of HBO's billions in revenue.
Cable companies want, as BTIG Research analyst Brandon Ross said, "to protect their legacy video bundle at all costs." And if all viewers want is HBO, why would they sign up for the full cable-bill cow when they can get it online for cheap?
The cable companies, Plepler said, have been responsive to selling HBO Now in a way that benefits them, packaging it as part of a "skinny bundle," with fewer channels and a lower price, or as part of a mixed-bag "triple play," with HBO Now the cherry on top.
"Nobody is doing us any favors selling HBO," Plepler said. "They’re growing their own businesses by using our brand. ... Whether they want to do skinny bundles or basic packages or triple plays, there are growth opportunities for them and ... for us. That’s what we’re excited about."
The still-new site has struggled with other growing pains: Subscribers, for instance, still can't sign up from their computer, but must navigate through a "participating provider" or a separate device, like the Roku streaming box or Amazon Fire tablet.
HBO Now was also touted as a salve for online piracy, on the belief that downloaders who would never pay for a traditional TV package would nevertheless have a cheap, sleek and legal way to watch original shows.
But the meager start has done little to protect the business, with "Game of Thrones" ending 2015 as the world's most-pirated show for the fourth straight year. The season finale last year was watched by 8 million viewers in the U.S., Nielsen data show — and illegally downloaded more than 14 million times.
Meanwhile, HBO Now must fight off another infringing online threat: Netflix, whose 44 million subscribers dwarfs HBO Now's fan base. The streaming giant has been around a lot longer, costs $5 less every month, has a far deeper library and fast-growing ambitions. Netflix this year will spend $5 billion on both licensing old shows and movies and creating their own new originals — far more than HBO, which Morgan Stanley analysts expect will spend about $2 billion on content this year.
Netflix clearly has its sights on supplanting HBO in the hearts of couch potatoes: In January 2013, a month before "House of Cards" premiered, Netflix's chief content officer Ted Sarandos said, "The goal is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us."
And Netflix is reaching that prestige and popularity far faster than most market-watchers expected. An average of 8 million viewers — 10 times HBO Now's subscription base — watched "Making A Murderer," Netflix's first original documentary series, in the first 35 days of its release, data from independent tracker Symphony Advanced Media found.
HBO is not willing to budge on one obvious gap between itself and Netflix: The price, particularly because expanding HBO Now will cost many millions more in marketing, development and distribution. As Turner Broadcasting System chief executive John K. Martin told analysts this week, "Our premium price right now makes sense and ... we have no plans to change it."
Some analysts argue that Netflix and HBO can peacefully coexist and even, perhaps, boost each other, by persuading more viewers to cut their cable and move online. But analysts like James C. Goss, a media and entertainment analyst with Barrington Research, said it's not going to get any easier to win new fans online.
"HBO wants to make sure they remain relevant because it's critical to their existence. They always have done that, and they’ve done it as well as anyone," Goss said. When it comes to winning new viewers, he added, "They should leave no stone unturned."