Tuesday, June 28, 2011

HBO's Finally Gets It: (Digital) Content Is King

Was it Netflix that lit that fire under Time Warner's ass? Did Jeff Bewkes' pas de deux with the brilliant upstart company sharpen his business sense?

Whatever the case, HBO now gets it. HBO's premium content is increasingly turning to digital in innovative ways of late. It is about time. This blogger believes that the competition from Netflix, far from being a bad thing for Time Warner, will make them a more efficient digital company. Time Warner now realizes that in the future televised content will be indistinguishable from all other forms of digital content in that it will be readily accessible via laptops, mobile devices and tablets.

HBO's sharp response to the challenge all sort of began -- or ramped up -- with Game of Thrones. That was when HBOGo made its debut. A couple of million downloads later some are asking who needs Netflix. Critically adored, HBO bundled all sorts of fascinating interactive features with previews of the next week's show. "Whether it be to showcase a map of the show’s seven kingdoms, give users a look into the family trees of different ruling houses, or a reliquary with interactive pages for artifacts in the show, the pop-ups that run alongside the videos give existing fans some cool toys to play with, while also providing a bit of context for those who aren’t already familiar with the popular book series the show is based on," wrote Ryan Lawler on GigaOm. The move was particularly well-timed because Game of Thrones happened to become a darling of the high-end viewer, leveraging HBO's premium content with its desirable audience.

But now with the return of True Blood, HBO is in overdrive. True Blood, which, like Game of Thrones, is inspired by cult series of books, follows in the HBOGo method. They even have character video blogs! Jessica, the sexy ginger vampire living with a Hoyt, the human being, now even has a v-blog ("BabyVamp Jessica"), lamenting how vampires don't like to cook. It has already drawn 190 sympathetic comments. It is also probably an interesting acting exercise -- to keep in character on a v-blog -- for the actors. Do they ad lib? Is it all scripted on the v-blog?

True Blood fans are rabid. Sunday's ratings were 5.42 viewers for its original broadcast -- not including people that will view it later on and online -- a tremendous number for non basic cable pay TV. True Blood fans have read the books, and now they are tuning in for HBO's take to supply visuals to their imaginings of the characters. V-blogs, forums -- keeping that audience engaged is incumbent on HBO to get maximum value out of its content.

In other words: HBO needs to build a community around each of its properties. Thus far, by and large, communities have sprouted up independently of HBO. The benefits of HBO's premium content has gone to independent contractors. That is HBO's fault for running such a crappy site in the past. Time Warner did not spend money and sustained effort in making HBO.com a true community and that is a tragedy.

But that seems to be changing, four seasons after True Blood began. Then again, as the old Catholic saying goes "the Church always makes way for late vocations."

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