AT&T to HBO: if it ain’t broke, fix it anyway

US telco AT&T has wasted little time before detailing how it’s going to ‘improve’ premium video content maker HBO now that it owns it.

For decades HBO has set the standard for TV excellence via series such as The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood and Game of Thrones. But just imagine what it could have achieved with some telecoms suits calling the shots – the mind boggles. Well now we get to find out because AT&T has bought it and recently served notice that things are going to have to change around here.

Having completed its mega-acquisition of Time Warner just weeks ago, AT&T has sent the new head of its entertainment group, John Stankey, on a tour of its of its conquered territories, to leave them in no doubt there’s a new sheriff in town. This has taken the form of a sequence of ‘town halls’ and the New York Times managed to get hold of a recording of the HBO one.

“It’s going to be a tough year,” Stankey is reported to have said. “It’s going to be a lot of work to alter and change direction a little bit.” The assembled HBO execs could be forgiven to have felt a tad taken aback by this stance, given their company’s dominance of all-time great TV lists, but it looks like mere quality is no longer enough.

“We need hours a day,” said Stankey indicating that he wants HBO’s share of total viewing time to increase dramatically . “It’s not hours a week, and it’s not hours a month. We need hours a day. You are competing with devices that sit in people’s hands that capture their attention every 15 minutes.”

In case a wholesale switch to quantitative KPIs wasn’t entirely self-explanatory, Stankey persisted. “I want more hours of engagement,” he demanded. “Why are more hours of engagement important? Because you get more data and information about a customer that then allows you to do things like monetize through alternate models of advertising as well as subscriptions, which I think is very important to play in tomorrow’s world.”

If comments like that don’t get the HBO incumbents pumped then we don’t know what will. It’s no great surprise that AT&T views HBO content as merely the conduit for juicy data that it can use to more efficiently exploit its customers but to hear that ambition so brutally detailed so soon is somewhat jarring. The elephant in the room for new-look HBO is clearly Netflix, but it’s investing more than ever in quality content and Stankey would be rash to do differently.

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