HBO's future under AT&T could mimic 'Westworld'

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Jeffrey Wright and Shannon Woodward on the second season of HBO's 'Westworld.'
Jeffrey Wright and Shannon Woodward on the second season of HBO's 'Westworld.' Credit: John P. Johnson/HBO

Perhaps HBO should heed the warnings of its popular sci-fi thriller "Westworld" when it pertains to data collection.

Under its new corporate owner AT&T, the premium pay-TV service may be viewed more as a vessel for data collection than for its high-quality dramas.

At a recent town hall meeting at HBO's New York City headquarters, AT&T exceutive John Stankey, who now oversees HBO parent WarnerMedia, said he is looking to substantially increase HBO's subscriber base and the number of hours that viewers spend watching its shows. According to The New York Times, which obtained a recording of the meeting, he wants HBO to create more content and broaden beyond its core Sunday night lineup.

The reason has a lot to do with AT&T's mission to become a data and advertising powerhouse that can challenge the likes of digital behemoths Facebook and Google.

"I want more hours of engagement," Stankey said during the meeting, according to the Times:

"Why are more hours of engagement important? Because you get more data and information about a customer that then allows you to do things like monetize through alternate models of advertising as well as subscriptions, which I think is very important to play in tomorrow's world."

It's a premise that is eerily similar to HBO's fictional world of "Westworld." In its second season–spoilers ahead for those who aren't caught up—"Westworld" revealed that its titular theme park, which was pegged as a place for rich guests to live out their wildest fantasies, is really just an elaborate data-collection operation.

HBO, which also boasts shows like "Game of Thrones" and "Big Little Lies," has always prided itself on being a home to high-quality content. And HBO's CEO Richard Plepler has long lived by the motto: "More isn't better, only better is better."

So it certainly sounds like Stankey wants to shake up the network's long-time business strategy. While according to the Times, Stankey never mentioned Netflix by name, he is clearly looking to position HBO to take on the streaming giant, which plans to spend as much as $8 billion in content this year. In comparison, HBO spent $2 billion last year on programming.

Exactly how HBO might use this data remains to be seen. While HBO is an ad-free service, its new parent AT&T is rapidly working on building its advertising and analytics business to be more automated and allow marketers to more precisely target audiences and deliver specific messages to households.

If Stankey's comments hold true, much like "Westworld," HBO could one day become become just another feeder for AT&T's larger data business.

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