After an exceedingly busy news week, it’s beginning to feel like the pioneering streaming service and the stalwart premium cable channel are playing their own “Game of Thrones.” Both have distinct advantages and disadvantages, especially when it comes to programming, where Netflix and HBO are in more direct competition than ever before. Let’s break down this heavyweight bout category by category:
Original Programming: HBO
Netflix is coming on strong, with “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” (March 6) and “Bloodline” (March 20) soon to join popular titles such as “House of Cards” and “Orange is the New Black.” But after the disastrous “Marco Polo,” it’s clear that the streaming service has yet to tap into the zeitgeist with a series as opulent, soapy, and surprising as HBO’s mega-hit “Game of Thrones.” Toss in provocative comedies (“Girls,” “Togetherness,” “Looking,” “Veep“), the underrated, utterly depressing “The Leftovers,” and “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” one of television’s best series, and you’ve got a stacked lineup—and that’s without considering a back catalogue filled such enduring classics as “Sex and the City,” “The Sopranos,” “Six Feet Under,” and “The Wire.” With a twenty-year head start, HBO has the clear advantage in this category. Oh, and did I mention a little show called “True Detective”?
Nonfiction Films: HBO
With the news that Leonardo DiCaprio is partnering with Netflix to produce a feature-length documentary as well as a nonfiction series focused on conservation and the environment—continuing a relationship that began with Oscar-nominated doc “Virunga”—the company once again seems to be gaining ground on its older competitor. But HBO Docs czar Sheila Nevins, whose keen eye “The Case Against 8” co-director Ryan White described in an interview last fall, has made the premium channel the place for filmmakers to pursue projects that might otherwise go unseen or unmade. From Andrew Jarecki’s extraordinary nonfiction mystery “The Jinx” and Laura Poitras’ Oscar-winning “Citizenfour” to Alex Gibney’s Scientology exposé “Going Clear” and Matthew Akers’ idiosyncratic portrait “Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present,” HBO may be the foremost driver of nonfiction filmmaking in the United States, and Netflix is unlikely to change that anytime soon.
Fiction Films: Netflix
Having paid $12 million for director Cary Fukunaga’s upcoming “Beasts of No Nation,” starring Idris Elba—and having shrugged off the four major exhibitors who immediately announced plans to boycott the film—Netflix is clearly a real player in film distribution beyond the smaller, nonfiction projects noted above. As TOH!’s Anne Thompson and Ryan Lattanzio point out, this comes on the heels of the streaming service’s pick-up of “Crouching Tiger 2” and a four-movie deal with Adam Sandler, all masterminded by content chief Ted Sarandos. Add to this the company’s deep, ever-evolving catalogue of film titles, and Netflix wins this round in a walk. Sure, Netflix has blind spots when it comes to fiction films—the rarities that made cinephiles such fans of the service back in the DVD-by-mail days rarely make it to streaming. But despite the heavy-hitting slate produced by HBO Films, and the fact that movies were once the channel’s bread and butter, HBO has a much less exciting presence in this area for its subscribers than Netflix does. Unless you’re interested in seeing “The Great Gatsby” again, that is.
HBO is smart to partner with Apple for the April launch of its $15/month streaming service HBO Now, timed to coincide with the season premiere of “Game of Thrones.” The tech wizards in Cupertino may help ward off the bugs that plagued last year’s highly anticipated “True Detective” finale on HBO Go, a scenario that probably leaves HBO execs in a cold sweat considering the importance of “Game of Thrones” to the subscriber base. Despite the fact that HBO Now has been labeled “the biggest challenge yet to the so-called cable bundle,” per the International Business Times, Netflix still has the advantage here, having ironed out most of the kinks in its crisp web interface and useful proprietary algorithm (the recent “House of Cards” leak notwithstanding). At $8.99/month for unlimited streaming, and with increasing commitment to genres, such as the sitcom, that HBO traditionally avoids, Netflix may well be the better value for some viewers.
By the slightest of margins, HBO’s formidable brand gives it the edge over Netflix, though HBO will have to remain vigilant as the streaming service continues to use its cash reserves to buy up juicy content. In the end, HBO’s era-defining tagline encapsulates the dramatic changes in the model for film and television production, distribution, and exhibition, and if the debut of HBO Now goes off without a hitch, the motto will ring true once more. “It’s not TV. It’s HBO.”