Tag Archives: HBO

Can HBO and Radio Have it All?

Tuesdays With Coleman

As the series finale for Game of Thrones approaches, the buzz feels stronger than ever. While it’s always tough for a network to lose a signature show, HBO has managed to deliver one success after another for the past 20 years. The Sopranos. Six Feet Under. The Wire. Entourage. Sex and the City. True Blood. Game of Thrones.

What’s one thing all those hugely successful shows have in common?

HBO aired them in prime time on Sunday nights. And now, it wants to make Monday night a showcase as well.

The network launched the new Monday night strategy last night by debuting its new mini-series, Chernobyl. The plan is to schedule two hours of original scripted programming each Monday night.

This begs the question: Is HBO’s Sunday night programming successful because the shows are great or are they successful because of HBO’s strong Sunday night benchmark?

If you think it’s the quality of the shows, consider the current television landscape.

How many lunch conversations have you been in where a coworker mentions a series on Netflix, Amazon Prime or Hulu that you haven’t seen?  It happens all the time at Coleman Insights. It’s not that they aren’t good shows—in most cases, they are arguably great shows— but when a show is available on-demand amongst a never-ending plethora of strong content, it’s just more challenging to create critical mass and buzz via a shared experience.

Clearly, HBO’s Sunday night benchmark—which they’ve now spent decades promoting heavily—matters. Will HBO now undermine Sunday with Monday?


Anytime you add more reasons to use a product you invariably undermine the initial reasons people have for using you.  That’s not necessarily bad as it can make you more broadly appealing, but it does make you less special.

Maybe Monday is ok, meaning you can broaden your appeal and be special, but what about when Tuesday is added and it continues to dilute the importance of Sunday?  Plus, as you add more programming it becomes impossible for them all to be as “good” or special as the original Sunday night shows.

Radio programmers inevitably find themselves in similar situations. Whether it is a station feature, morning bit or music, adding to the current recipe can be great, but it can also undermine the current focus of the station. To add or not to add?

One scenario is addition by music.

Radio stations are known for playing certain styles of music. Broadening into other music styles may be critical to stay in sync with everchanging music tastes. Adding music genres your station isn’t known for may work in the short-term, especially if the genre is currently very popular. But, stations can only extend that success and logic so far. When a station adds too many styles, particularly ones it is not really known for, it may no longer be unique. Product fit is diminished and the brand is diluted. Short term success can turn into unforeseen long-term problems. Ideally, your radio station should play songs that test well (High Acceptance) and fit your station’s brand (High Fit,) as illustrated in the Acceptance-Fit Matrix below:

Acceptance Fit Matrix

Another scenario is addition by features.

Can a radio station add too many features? Absolutely, especially if it takes away from the promotion of the big, popular feature (i.e., “Phone Taps”) that is proven to draw listeners into the station. Music stations also fall into the trap of adding too much non-music content during the day, which gets in the way of the other content and dilutes the product. We often think we need to add more, when we simply need to market the best things more.

Your success is oftentimes driven by what makes you unique. Broadening your radio station may sound great in theory, but it can dilute your uniqueness and damage your long-term position. This is the risk for HBO.

When considering what to add to your radio station to make it more mass appeal, always consider whether the risk of losing uniqueness and diluting your brand is outweighed by the number of listeners you’ll bring to the station.

Usually you’ll find it is not.

HBO and the Mass Appeal Trap

Tuesdays With Coleman

Why do listeners choose your radio station?

Why do listeners choose your podcast?

Why do viewers choose your TV show?

Why do diners choose your restaurant?

No matter what business you’re in, it’s important to be clear about why your customers choose to do business with you.

Today, we’ll focus on HBO, which was just taken over by AT&T as part of its acquisition of Time Warner.

According to the New York Times, John Stankey, the AT&T executive who now oversees HBO, envisions changes coming to the network. He suggested HBO will have to increase its subscriber base and the number of viewing hours. To do that, HBO will have to broaden its scope, past signature Sunday night shows like Game of Thrones.

So, why do viewers choose HBO?

The short answer is for high quality, compelling shows. There aren’t many signature HBO shows, but when they get a big one it’s really big. The Sopranos. Game of Thrones. The Wire. Six Feet Under. Entourage. Curb Your Enthusiasm. True Blood…and the list goes on.

Incredibly, HBO has traditionally focused on one night a week for its original programming – Sundays. So on the one hand, HBO is not top-of-mind Monday-Saturday. But it’s really top-of-mind on Sunday nights.

They’ve been able to get away with it (and charge a premium) for a long time as a result of the premium quality of its programming.

Now the game is changing. Competing pay channels, like Showtime and Starz, have upped their original programming games. Netflix is a binge factory. HBO was the destination for high production value and strong writing. Now, there’s more choice than ever – and just about every choice is less expensive than HBO.

While HBO should rightfully look to increase interest in the channel in this sea of choice, it risks the “mass appeal trap.” In the effort to broaden its appeal, it waters down its point of differentiation. The very reason(s) why consumers chose the brand in the first place.

The Tuesdays With Coleman blog “Don’t Change Your Radio Station” covered the value of not changing for the sake of change. Radio stations sometimes get the inclination to change things when they shouldn’t be changed. Clearly defined brand images are extremely desirable, and take a great deal of time to build. Any changes radio stations make should be carefully considered through the lens of their desirable images and whether those changes will be at the expense of their base position.

Alternative radio stations in the early 90s faced the challenge of broadening appeal while maintaining their credibility with an audience that liked the stations because they sounded and felt different. While playlists were broader in scope, programmers had to make sure that the new sounds were compatible and that the stations maintained their left-of-center images. If the alternative station loses the perception of being – well, the “alternative” – it can spell trouble for the brand.

Adult Album Alternative (AAA) radio stations have faced a similar challenge. Stations that previously played a large number of deep tracks, for example, found they needed to become more hit-driven to broaden appeal. The challenge was, and remains, how to do so while maintaining the often eccentric, cooler-than-the-room images that draw many listeners to the format.

HBO has the Sunday night image and the quality image and it should defend those images. So, when it considers changes to increase its audience, their leadership, too, must ensure those changes enhance, not water down, those images.

If HBO is losing subscribers and needs to compete for more viewing hours, it has to do it in a way that protects its quality franchise, but at the same time has more programs that rival that of Netflix and other competition. The way HBO does that is the key. This includes how and how often it promotes and markets the images.

Stankey claims HBO has to find a way to “move beyond 35 to 40 percent penetration to have (HBO) become a more common product”.

Desiring more usage is one thing. But as leaders of some of the most successful radio stations and brands will tell you, “common” is quite another.

There’s the propensity to think becoming more mass appeal = more audience = more revenue.

Beware of this trap.

If becoming more mass appeal compromises your brand and decreases focus, it can (and often does) result in less audience and less revenue.

Perhaps HBO can build its base while maintaining its brand position. If, after the changes, it is still perceived as special and a little “uncommon”, that wouldn’t be a bad thing.