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HBO VERSUS Netflix: A Battle of Quality and Quantity in the Streaming Wars

This is the latest edition of our VERSUS series, where we dive into how the biggest businesses compete to win. Listen to the episode on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and read the episode recap here.


“Mr. Soprano? Have a seat.” 

Those five words changed television forever.

Uttered in 1999 by Tony Soprano’s psychiatrist Dr. Melfi, it was the very first line of the outrageously successful HBO series The Sopranos. 

A series that catapulted the network into the stratosphere. 

A year before that, HBO launched another iconic TV series following the lives of a Manhattan lifestyle columnist and her three best friends called Sex and the City. 

And just one year later, HBO and Seinfeld co-creator Larry David brought Curb Your Enthusiasm into existence. A show still running to this day after 11 seasons. 

(Pretty, pretty, pretty good).

🤜🤛A Tale of Two Disruptors

Neither company would have gained the prominence it has without being a disruptor.

Netflix transformed entertainment and spawned a generation of cord-cutters. Booting cable companies into the dark ages in the process. 

Today, viewers take for granted the ability to watch whatever they want, whenever they want, as many times as they want to — like they can on Netflix.

But it wasn’t Netflix that invented the concept of watching content whenever and wherever — aka on-demand. 

In fact, it was HBO that revolutionized the concept of Video-On-Demand. 

Although consumers still had to subscribe to HBO via a traditional cable television provider, once they did, not only could they watch live HBO content, but content on-demand as well. 

HBO were also pioneers in satellite broadcasting and creating the multiplex concept (having multiple channels within the same brand, i.e. HBO 2, HBO Family, HBO Sports, for example.)

Of course, innovation and disruption have much less to do with who was first than who’s doing it better now. 

And as the stats bear out, Netflix rakes in four times the revenue of HBO. 

HBO VERSUS Netflix by the numbers

Netflix Subscribers and Revenue

Among the main reasons why, through its competitive advantage, Netflix dominates HBO in terms of revenue and subscribers are its ease of use, and massive content library. 

Ever since Netflix launched its streaming service way back in 2007, accessing a huge library of content was made as easy as signing into your email account. 

And on mobile devices, if you can download an app and sign in, you can use Netflix. 

What’s more, Netflix was one of the first streaming services available as an app on devices like gaming consoles and smart televisions (more on that later). 

HBO by contrast has been inextricably linked to cable companies. 

You didn’t subscribe to HBO by heading to HBO.com. Instead, you contacted your cable provider and added HBO as a premium channel package. 

(Raise your hand if you remember being on the phone with the cable guy….”I’ll be there between 9 am and 4 pm sometime this quarter.”)

📺 HBO Couldn’t Cut the Cord

Antiquated as it seems now, tying services to cable made a ton of business sense for HBO in the pre-streaming era. 

Not only was it feasible that consumers would subscribe to HBO through their cable provider — since more than 65 million Americans had a cable package in the mid-2000s — by tethering to the cable companies, HBO avoided having to deal directly with consumers. 

If you had complaints about HBO, you didn’t call HBO’s contact center — you phoned your cable provider. 

“There were no HBO call centers…If you wanted HBO you had to call your local cable provider. No picture? No sound? Well don’t call HBO, get back on the phone with your cable system? Missing your latest bill? HBO needn’t worry. The cable companies are responsible,” explained James Andrew Miller in his book Tinder Box, an oral history of HBO. 

But where’s all the data??

And while that business model was borderline brilliant before Netflix vaulted into the mainstream, it also put HBO at a serious disadvantage: 

  1. Barely half of American homes currently have a cable subscription
  2. Worst of all: HBO couldn’t access consumer data

And consumer data? Well, that’s how Netflix changed the game and gave itself a major competitive advantage.

It was the reason they could build a recommendation algorithm that kept viewers hooked on their platform. And it informed their decision-making around producing original programming.

(In other words: finding revenue drivers more efficiently than the competition.) 

In an effort to get with the times, HBO launched their first direct-to-consumer streaming service, HBO Max, in 2020. 

The service features all of HBO’s original programming, as well as content produced by its parent company WarnerBros Discovery.

But why it took HBO so long to finally get with the times is a head-scratcher. 

In the interim, Netflix was able to stake their claim to streaming dominance and develop the kinds of non-cable company partnerships that made its service available to a modern audience. 

For example, when I pick up the remote to my Samsung TV, I don’t see an HBO logo, but I sure see a Netflix logo looking right back at me.

Netflix competitive advantage: partnerships

And if I have a complaint, I can quickly and easily access Netflix’s excellent customer service. 

So while HBO has finally made its foray into the streaming world, it will still have to contend with its ties to traditional cable companies and the rapid decline of cable tv subscribers. 

A problem that Netflix never has — and never will — have to face. 

👍 HBO VERSUS NETFLIX: A Battle of Two Excellent Products

I have to confess, I am an HBO content lover through and through. Always have been, always will be. 

But assessing a product’s value requires more than just looking at the content. 

Netflix’s product and the value it provides encompasses the delivery system and the price, in addition to the content.

Netflix has dominated HBO in the delivery aspect of the product ever since it started streaming content. 

To access Netflix’s library of content on my TV, all I need to do is sign into my account once.

(Well, I use my girlfriend’s parents’ Netflix account so all I need to do is sign into their account once). Then I click the bright red Netflix button on my remote, and voilà. 

Before HBO Max, I had to contact my cable company, modify my cable package to include HBO, and tack on an extra $15 or so for the pleasure.

Are you content with the content? 

Although Netflix moved first, easy access to a wide library of content on the internet is now the standard issue for streaming entertainment. 

As their competitors started to catch up, Netflix knew it had to differentiate itself on not just the delivery system, but on the content itself. 

And since paying for the rights of other studios’ content was becoming increasingly difficult and competitive, Netflix decided to become a major player in producing original content. 

In 2021 alone, Netflix spent around $17 billion on content, about half of that on original content. 

Is all of it good? Not even close.

But it has produced some winners. Like the very first original production that helped Netflix mark its territory as a studio to be reckoned with.

Netflix competitive advantage original programming

Storytime!

The year is 2012. Beau Willimon is shopping his script around to all the major American TV networks. 

HBO — who after a few failures made it a point of policy to almost never give out multi-season commitments — offered to produce the pilot for Willimon’s show. 

Netflix, who at the time was teetering on the edge of giving up on their original content production dreams altogether, made a huge offer. They would commit to producing two full seasons. 

Willimon signed with Netflix, and that show became House of Cards. A show that would validate Netflix as an original programmer once and for all. 

Shortly thereafter, though, the content streaming world became insanely competitive. 

First, there was Hulu, then Amazon Prime, then Apple+ and now Disney+ — all producing their own premium original content. 

What Netflix would quickly find, is that not only is producing high-quality content extremely difficult, it’s expensive too. 

A cost that Netflix is starting to pass on to its users.

💰The Price is Wrong

Netflix recently announced pricing increases to its basic, standard and premium plans. This follows a suite of yearly price increases starting when Netflix began investing heavily in original programming. 

US customers will now shell out $15.49/month for the standard package and $19.99 for premium. 

HBO Max on the other hand costs $14.99/month or $149.99 for a yearly subscription. 

So the difference in price between the two is negligible. But what do you get for that same price? 

HBO competitive advantage

Despite near parity in prices, there is a serious disparity in the sheer volume of content on each platform. (And arguably, the quality of content as well.)

Netflix has nearly three times more content than does HBO Max. 

You can stream over 36 thousand hours of content on Netflix compared to 13 thousand on HBO Max. 

But volume does not equal value. Quantity does not equal quality. 

Comparing the quality of HBO’s original content versus that of Netflix is an inexact science at best. Neither company readily provides viewership numbers. 

But one way to analyze the quality of content is by looking at the accolades each has received.

🏆And the Emmy Goes to…

As of 2021 Netflix has received 619 Emmy nominations and won 112 awards since it took home its first award in 2013 for the political drama House of Cards. 

But they have a LONG way to go to catch up to HBO.

Four of the top 25 all-time Emmy award-winning shows are HBO Originals (Game of Thrones, Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire, Veep.) 

These four shows alone combine for more Emmy awards (116) than Netflix in total. 

Throw in Emmy award-winning HBO series like Sex and the City, Barry, Six Feet Under and the numbers are truly staggering. 

That said, Netflix beats HBO original programming when it comes to full-length feature movies. 

Films like The Irishman, Marriage Story, and this year’s Don’t Look Up are a testament to Netflix’s original programming prowess in feature films. A domain which HBO hasn’t entered. And a clear differentiator for Netflix. 

(Note: HBO Max features Warner Bros award-winning movies like Argo, The Departed, Million Dollar Baby, and Lord of the Rings. Additionally, as Warnerbros HBO merger with Discovery becomes finalized, you can bet that there will be a ton of good nature programming on HBO Max in the coming months.)

The devil is in the differentiation

As someone who gravitates more towards TV series than feature films, there’s no doubt in my mind who has the better product. 

HBO’s roster of quality TV content is insanely deep. Not only are there the many, many award-winning TV series listed above, HBO takes the cake in mini-series (Band of Brothers, Adams, Chernobyl.) and late-night programming (Last Week with John Oliver, Real Time with Bill Maher.)

Netflix has earned its due by producing quality feature-length films. And certainly holds a candle to HBO in TV when you consider excellent series like The Crown, House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black

And while ‘quality’ isn’t the word I would use to describe it, Netflix’s reality tv programming is an area where they have succeeded, while HBO won’t touch it with a ten-foot pole. 

Ultimately, if groundbreaking television series are your jam, HBO is the best product for you. You’ll get fewer hours of content, but the quality is unmatched.

On the other hand, if the volume is your play, Netflix has nearly 3x the content and produces reality TV and nature documentaries in a way that HBO original programming does not. 

Netflix competitive advantage: nature programming

🐐 HBO VERSUS Netflix: The Brand 

It goes without saying that you can’t host 36 thousand hours of content and have it all be good. In fact, a lot of it is utter crap.  

For every A+ Netflix show like Ozark and Stranger Things, you get at least four C+ (at best) shows like Stay Close, You, and Lucifer. 

Are these shows terrible? No. (Well, Stay Close is pretty bad). 

But when you’re assessing the quality of content on Netflix, you can’t ignore that, compared to HBO, there are way more misses than hits. 

And this has a direct impact on Netflix’s brand and competitive advantage.

HBO has crafted a brand identity that is synonymous with outstanding, premium content. 

Even content that falls short of legendary status is still high quality.

And it’s HBO’s staying power thanks to consistently producing outstanding content that has solidified and reinforced the brand as a premium content provider. 

And it continues to this day. HBO’s next-level content didn’t start and end at the turn of the century with The Sopranos, Sex and the City, and Curb Your Enthusiasm

As the two former shows were wrapping up, Game of Thrones started its run in 2007. A run that would lead to an all-time Emmy award record for wins (59) and nominations (161) for a drama series. 

And just when you thought the end of Game of Thrones might bring about a fallow period for the network, came critically acclaimed shows like Succession, Euphoria and Mare of East Town.

Netflix is closing the quality gap

HBO original programming quality

But even as Netflix begins to close the quality gap with HBO in original programming, they’re still miles behind on making quality part of its identity. 

Financially speaking, one hit Netflix original show or movie might make up for nine bad ones. 

But from a brand point of view, the nine misses stick out like a sore thumb.

And the hit shows can’t completely shake the stench of being produced by the same network responsible for the misses.

A brand identity associated with bad content is no brand identity at all. 

Premium quality versus prodigious quantity 

Netflix’s success in subscribers and revenue doesn’t emanate solely from its original content. Many Netflix users spend their time watching non-Netflix Original content. 

NBC’s The Office, Seinfeld, and Friends have all been hugely popular shows on Netflix, (Friends — a Warner Bros. production — is now on HBO Max.) 

What’s more, Netflix has accomplished a branding feat reserved for only the most powerful brands of all time. 

Coca-Cola is synonymous with soda. Amazon is synonymous with shopping. And Netflix is synonymous with movie and tv streaming. 

It made the most of its first-mover advantage in the streaming space to carve out its identity as the go-to place to watch. That’s why in 2019, 85% of respondents among 2,730 Americans surveyed said they paid for digital video content from Netflix. 

When your brand becomes eponymous, like Tesla for Electric Vehicles or iPhone for smartphones, you have certainly accomplished something. 

But HBO’s Brand is Better

At the same time, your brand is as much about your company’s worst attributes as it is about t best ones.

As Netflix continues to raise prices year after year to pay for the additional content it’s creating, the question is whether or not the content quality is rising in parallel with prices. 

HBO has proved for more than 20 years that it will continue to produce superior content with fewer duds than Netflix. As a result, the brand is stronger than ever. 

And with HBO Max’s inclusion of Warner Brothers and soon Discovery’s libraries, HBO lovers will soon get to consume Oscar-winning full-length films as well. 

In the battle of the brands, HBO’s consistently superior original programming content wins out over Netflix’s mass-production approach. 

People don’t need more content. They need better content. 

Netflix: competitive advantage on the decline? 

In 2022, Netflix stock dropped by 20% due to slower than expected subscriber growth. Some suggest that’s because consumers everywhere are nearing a saturation point with streaming services. 

If part of the rationale of cutting the cord was due to price, how can you justify subscribing to Netflix and Amazon Prime and Hulu and HBO? 

And if the solution is to limit oneself to only one or two streaming services, data from 2021 show that US consumers are signing up for Prime Video, HBO Max and Disney+ at much faster rates than Netflix. 

It may not be time for Netflix to hit the panic button just yet. 

But just like the outlook for HBO started to look bleak when the world turned to streaming, Netflix will now have to contend and compete in a crowded competitive landscape in a way they didn’t before. 

👑 Better Content, Not More Content

More than 220 million subscribers can’t be wrong. Netflix’s dizzying amount of content — including some good content — its innovative genesis and first-mover advantage have all contributed to the dominant position it is in today. 

It is rightfully reaping the fruit it’s sewn. 

But Netflix is at risk of falling prey to an increasingly competitive landscape. 

Like Netflix, BlackBerry was a first-mover and innovator, but the smartphone maker rested on its laurels and paid the ultimate price. 

For HBO, the future looks brighter than ever before.

Not only has it proved it’s capable of consistently producing critically acclaimed, groundbreaking, quality content year after year (read decade after decade), the newer iteration as HBO Max portends to hit Netflix right where it hurts.

The streaming wars have saturated viewers with content. And any company with deep enough pockets will be able to compete with Netflix on sheer volume of content. 

But winning the category will not be about producing MORE content. 

The differentiator for the ultimate winner of the streaming wars will be producing BETTER content. Higher quality content.

It takes a special brand to compete on quality. 

And HBO is that brand. 

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