How Game of Thrones changed television…and the business of television

The final season of Game of Thrones is not just a landmark moment in pop culture. It's also an enormously significant event for Australia's $4 billion a year pay TV business.

The hit HBO fantasy drama, which begins its prolonged denouement on Monday morning, Australian time, is perhaps the defining program of an era sometimes described as TV's second golden age. 

Game of Thrones changed TV...and the business of TV.

Game of Thrones changed TV...and the business of TV. Credit:HBO

The show rewrote the rulebook for television, abruptly killing off key characters, embracing sex, violence and taboos with fervour, and it propelled terms like 'Winter is Coming' and 'Red Wedding' into mainstream discourse.

In an age of Netflix - the streaming platform famously releases all episodes of its original series at once - it is also arguably the last example of 'event TV' on a mass scale. Few things besides live sport compel people to tune in and watch TV at the same time in their own countries anymore, let alone around the world (at often inconvenient hours).

In a business context, the fast approaching end to Thrones raises some interesting strategic questions about the future of HBO itself,  and for the Australian media companies that license - or would like to license - its content.

In Australia, HBO content lives on Foxtel under a deal that is widely known to run for at least couple more years.

Thrones has been a huge hit for Foxtel, but not enough of a draw to offset the other seismic forces pressuring the pay TV business.

Foxtel's earnings have been under serious pressure - last quarter they plunged by 84 per cent according to calculations by Morgan Stanley - with customers cancelling or downgrading their packages and opting for cheaper streaming services.

This has prompted Foxtel to deepen its own push into streaming, first through sport-based platform KayoSports, with some speculation a similar product for entertainment could be in the works.

In the US, telecoms giant AT&T (which has being hurt by similar cord-cutting dynamics as Foxtel) last year acquired TimeWarner, the owner of HBO and other media assets such as CNN, for $US80 billion.

Since getting its hands on HBO , AT&T has already ruffled some feathers at the business.  For example, long serving chief executive Richard Plepler, who had an extremely strong rapport with content creators, stepped aside after 27 years at the helm.

Under Plepler, HBO churned out a string of zeitgeist capturing hit series. Whether that continues without him and under AT&Ts stewardship,  remains to be seen.

Yet the Plepler era was also a period during which HBO, like most legacy TV companies, was utterly outmanouvered on the business front by Netflix. (The streaming giant's goal, famously, was to become HBO before HBO became Netflix. It succeeded).

In 2015, in an attempt to hedge itself against the impact of Netflix, HBO launched HBO Now, a direct to consumer streaming service of its own, with lukewarm results.

BTIG analyst Rich Greenfield estimates HBO Now has 8 million subscribers in the US. That is dwarfed by Netflix, which last October reported 57 million paying streaming members in its home market.

And most of HBO Now's subscribers, Greenfield calculates, actually come through wholesale relationships with the likes of Amazon Prime Instant Video and Hulu, a TV based streaming service in the US now majority owned by Disney.

Greenfield has argued that AT&T would need to go all in on streaming to build a viable competitor to Netflix. That would mean putting all of its content into one consumer facing brand, and giving up lucrative licensing fees from its distributors.
The problem is, this would require substantial investment, and the telco is hamstrung by its desire to protect its dividend.

The next best option, he has argued, could be for AT&T to position its media assets to "effectively become the world’s largest content arms dealer of great content."

This, together with the mixed performance of HBO Now in the US, might mean AT&T is less likely explore the direct to consumer option in markets like Australia, when its deal with Foxtel runs out.

In theory, that could open the door for Stan, the streaming platform owned by Nine (the owner of this newspaper) to strike a deal with HBO when the time comes.

Stan currently has its own high profile deal with perhaps the most iconic US entertainment studio of them all, Disney, which is believed to run until the end of this year.

Last week in the US, Disney took the wraps off its own Netflix-killing streaming service, Disney+, to mostly favourable reviews from analysts.  "Not surprisingly, the user interface, content quality, brands and upcoming marketing efforts were all impressive," Credit Suisse analysts wrote.

Disney made it clear it wants to roll Disney+  out internationally.  It is targeting between 60 and 90 million subscribers globally by 2024.

What form that global expansion might take, and whether deals with Stan or even Foxtel could still be possible in Australia, remains a live question. But Disney will need "an aggressive ramp in originals" to succeed, Credit Suisse says.

Disney is a master at original content, but there has been no more impactful original TV series in recent years than Game of Thrones. 

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