When HBO announced in October 2014 it would be launching a stand-alone, internet-only version of itself, the internet cheered and pledged its undying devotion, or at least $15 a month while “Game of Thrones” was on the air. When it launched in April, industry observers wondered if it might be a Netflix killer.
And now we finally know exactly how many put their money where their comments were: HBO Now currently has “about 800,000” paying subscribers, HBO’s CEO, Richard Plepler, revealed Wednesday morning. While Plepler seemed sanguine about the number, other sources say it’s a disappointment.
The official number came out after HBO’s parent company, Time Warner, released its earnings for 2015 on Wednesday. According to the report, HBO, Cinemax and HBO Now combined tacked on 2.7 million additional subscribers in the U.S. in 2015.
That’s healthy growth — though it still lags way behind Netflix, which added 5.6 million domestic customers in 2015 — but it suffers from comparison with the previous year. Without the help of HBO Now, HBO and Cinemax added a combined 2.8 million subscribers in 2014.
2014 was indeed an outlier. To maintain an apples-to-apples comparison, we’ll keep HBO and Cinemax together: The two network suites added 1 million customers in 2012 and 1.9 million in 2013, per media research firm SNL Kagan. So it does seem as though HBO Now isn’t necessarily cannibalizing regular HBO subscriptions, even if it isn’t yet proving to be the streaming juggernaut insiders hoped.
Plepler bristled at the idea that the lower than hoped-for growth was the result of cable conglomerates being reluctant to promote selling internet-only HBO. “Nobody’s doing us any favors selling HBO,” he said. “They’re growing their business by using our brand. If they want to sell HBO through skinny bundles, fantastic. If they want to sell it through triple play packages, fantastic.” But key to nabbing more of the potential HBO Now audience, he added, was getting on PlayStation and Xbox consoles, which he said account for 20 percent of the use of HBO’s on-demand online product, HBO Go.
Of course, if Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes can keep subscription revenues climbing, it shouldn’t make a difference how people subscribe — money is money, regardless of the source. Time Warner as a whole took in $7.1 billion in the last quarter of 2015, down from $7.5 billion in the same quarter in 2014, with earnings per share for the quarter of $1.06, beating Wall Street’s estimates of $1.01. HBO accounted for $1.4 billion of that $7.1 billion, up from $1.34 billion in 2014.