HBO Max has scaled quickly since launch but its international chief believes the importance placed on subscriber growth is decreasing as investors and operators drill down on longer term profitability.
Johannes Larcher pointed to the importance of scale during his MIPTV keynote yesterday, highlighting that Netflix’s international growth provides it with the means to plough billions more dollars into content production despite static US growth.
Larcher said HBO Max was following a similar strategy, with 40 European originals in 2023 – up from just 10 in 2019 – and added that he wanted to be “one of the three leading players globally.”
But he told TBI that the industry and investors are now shifting attention onto what a successful streamer looks like, with sustainable profit potential overtaking straight subscriber growth.
“For us, it’s not just about chasing subscriber numbers. The stock market and investors were all focused in 2021 on subs growth – everything was about subs growth.
“They’d look and see Disney has grown by 10 million subs or whatever it might be – but if you peel the curtains back and look at the Hotstar numbers in India, they might have many subscribers but their Average Revenue Per User (ARPU) is below a dollar. How do you build a sustainable business with that long term?”
Larcher said WarnerMedia, which could be formally combined with Discovery as soon as Friday, is “taking a much more focused approach on building a not only large but profitable and sustainable business.”
The question for investors, the former Hulu and Shahid exec continued, is whether streaming can be a “good business”, he said.
“I believe it will be, but it requires a focus not just on subs growth but also on a healthy unit economic model that brings us enough revenue per user to afford the content and the marketing and the support and technology, and to then be left with something that is actually margin at the end of the day.”
Larcher used his keynote to highlight how HBO Max has unfurled its roll-out with a market-by-market approach, using cut-through IP such as the Sex And The City reboot to attract subscribers where the HBO brand is not as well known.
The streamer had 27 million subscribers outside of the US at the end of 2021, he added, but admitted that the eye-watering amounts of money spent on content – Netflix is predicted to spend around $21bn in 2026 – had to deliver sustainable growth.
“That is the big question. We are not the biggest service and we don’t want to be the biggest service in terms of hours, you can go to Amazon or Netflix and find a lot more content. But we believe that when it comes to quality of the selection and finding something meaningful to view we are very much the best, because the density of quality we offer is the highest.
“We will see significant levels of content being produced and there will be that focus on quality, because [the industry] will have to level out at a sustainable level of content being produced each year. Something is going to have to give, because consumers aren’t willing to go back to the days when they commit $80 month for entertainment.”
Larcher, who was speaking prior to the exec exodus at WarnerMedia on Tuesday, added that the upcoming merger with Discovery would offer new potential for growth.
Discovery has already said the HBO Max and Discovery+ services will be combined into a single standalone offering, and the HBO Max International chief said the variety of content on offer would attract a broad spectrum of viewers.
“We will work out the best way of creating an experience for the consumer that makes sense in the context of the variety of content we have… I don’t see a clash in terms of the cultures.
“Shows like 90 Day Fiancé can very well sit alongside a show like Euophria, for example. Consumers have different tastes and we don’t want to be elitist in thinking that consumers only want the latest cutting-edge conversation-changing and boundary-pushing HBO drama. There are different tastes and different people.”