November 26, 2007 / 4:27 AM / 10 years ago

Post-"Sopranos," HBO not bleeding subscribers

LOS ANGELES/NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - The loss of Tony Soprano didn’t put a hit on HBO this summer. The network is looking as Teflon as a Mafia don, according to the latest subscriber numbers, which actually rose slightly in the first full quarter since the most-watched series in HBO’s history cut to black.

New data from SNL Kagan indicates that HBO’s subscriber base ticked up in the third quarter by 80,000 to 28.94 million despite concerns that the series’ departure would lead a portion of customers to drop their subscriptions.

A 0.3 percent increase might be nothing for incoming Time Warner CEO and former HBO chief Jeff Bewkes to crow about, but it’s fairly consistent with the flat subscriber levels HBO has been registering during the past several years.

“It seemed like a lot of people said they were going to cancel HBO after ‘Sopranos’ ended,” said Deana Myers, who has tracked premium cable viewing patterns for the past decade as senior analyst at SNL Kagan. “It did seem like it was going to go down.”

The numbers reveal an oft-overlooked truth about the premium-cable category, which HBO occupies with Showtime and Starz: Original programs might get all the attention, but their effect on subscription sales isn’t straightforward. Shows like “Sopranos” are just one variable in a more complicated equation in which subscription prices and cable-operator marketing can be even bigger factors.

Subscriber fees provide the lion’s share of HBO’s revenue, which SNL Kagan projects will reach $3.7 billion this year. HBO declined comment.

PROGRAMMING STRUGGLES

Since losing “Sopranos,” HBO has been bombarded with bad buzz, from the flop of the series’ time-slot replacement, “John From Cincinnati,” to only modest returns on other new shows like “Tell Me You Love Me.” Such returning veterans as “Entourage” and “Big Love” showed little growth.

The new data reflects the absence of a consistent correlation between pay TV tentpole originals and spikes in subscription numbers. Though the 22-month stretch between the fifth and sixth “Sopranos” seasons was the only time that HBO registered small subscriber decreases, HBO experienced its biggest recent spike in first-quarter 2006 -- a time when none of its flagship series were on the air.

This gain of 365,000 subscribers might be attributable in part to promotion for the long-awaited sixth season of “Sopranos,” but network insiders have long known that it had much more to do with a DirecTV promotion during the previous quarter for its “NFL Sunday Ticket” package, which offered HBO free for that quarter.

Other nonprogramming factors -- primarily affiliate marketing -- continue to drive subscriber growth at the pay networks. Showtime went into an all-out push for subscribers this fall, initiating its deepest discount: an annual subscription plan for $7.95 a month.

The gambit worked; Showtime is expected to hit 15 million subscribers for the first time in the fourth quarter. But while having such acclaimed shows as “Dexter” and “Weeds” helps, the discounts that help lure subscribers can cut into the bottom line.

Another potential factor: Pay TV services are hoping that new multichannel service providers from the phone business, like AT&T, eventually will experience the same explosive growth that satellite once did. DirecTV’s gains during the 1990s were hugely important to HBO’s own development.

BEYOND THE GLAMOUR

Regardless of the distribution mode, HBO isn’t riding some kind of rising tide among premium channels. HBO’s own sister channel Cinemax and rival Starz both registered small declines. Although Starz’s schedule has long been heavy on theatrical films, it plans to venture into original series next year.

Programming is definitely a factor, but in HBO’s case, “Sopranos” was far from its only asset. Scripted originals might be media darlings, but less glamorous staples like the films from HBO’s studio output deals and one-off sports events like boxing could be just as big a draw as “Sopranos.”

And then there is the school of thought that HBO will feel the impact of losing “Sopranos,” but it will take a few more quarters for the shake-out to occur. Or perhaps, as Myers suggests, regardless of the absence of “Sopranos,” its very success has earned subscribers’ trust that more good stuff is on the way.

“It says something about the brand that people want to stick with HBO,” she said.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter

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