Last Sunday, HBO's popular fantasy series Game of Thrones concluded its fourth season with a finale that proved to be everything fans wanted and more. However, the finale was also equally exciting for HBO's parent company Time Warner (NYSE:TWX.DL) and its shareholders as well.
With arguably the highest quality lineup in all of television, HBO remains the crown jewel in Time Warner's portfolio. The premium network should also prove to be a major source of potential growth going forward as management at Time Warner seeks new ways to ward off aggressive competitors like Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX).
The king atop the throne
In the media landscape, the most important aspect to consider when evaluating companies is content. Since there is a constant demand for new and compelling programming that will never diminish, a company's ability to generate new content is of chief importance.
This is what makes HBO such a valuable asset for Time Warner, even though it generates just 27% of the company's total revenue. For years the network has reigned supreme, both critically and commercially, with hit shows like The Sopranos, The Wire and Entourage. The network's newer additions like True Detective and Game of Thrones are no less popular and prove that the company has a winning formula for success in television.
Game of Thrones just recorded its most-watched finale ever; viewership was up 32% from last year's season finale. When accounting for two additional plays, total viewership on Sunday reached 9.3 million. This is very impressive considering that the first season's finale only recorded approximately 3 million views.
The network's new crime series True Detective, which was already renewed for a second season back in January, also boasted impressive commercial success. The show's finale in March drew in 3.5 million viewers, which represents an increase of 50% from the show's premiere in January. The show ranks behind only Six Feet Under as HBO's most watched freshmen series.
Increasing competition from Netflix
The demand for content has led technology companies like Netflix to start producing original content of its own. Over the years, Netflix has debuted numerous shows that are only available to Netflix audiences. None is more popular than House of Cards, however.
Although Netflix does not release viewer numbers, the political-based series is a massive success, as 16% of subscribers reportedly watched at least one episode of the show's second season within the first 24 hours of it going live. Incredibly, this viewership number is up eightfold from the first season's premiere.
To keep competitors like Netflix at bay, HBO has several new shows for 2014 and more in the development pipeline. New comedy Silicon Valley just wrapped a successful first season and is already set for a second while the dramatic series The Leftovers is set to premiere on June 29.
Meanwhile, HBO made big news a few weeks ago when it announced it was developing a new science fiction series based on Margaret Atwood's popular book trilogy. Perhaps most impressive is that Academy Award winner Darren Arnofsky is reported to be Executive Producer of the series.
So far, HBO has done better at generating profits than Netflix, although the network's sales are growing much slower. In 2013, HBO's operating profit of $1.8 billion crushed Netflix's $228 million in operating income but its sales growth of 4% was significantly slower than Netflix's robust 21%.
The future of HBO
Although network management's ability to create some of the best television series is a major catalyst for future growth at HBO, the largest potential driver of future growth may actually come in the form of a stand-alone service.
HBO Go, which is currently a streaming service available only to HBO subscribers, offers most of the network's robust lineup of series and movies to viewers. The app can be downloaded on most mobile devices and media platforms.
Should HBO ever decide to offer the service by itself to customers, it would be in direct competition with the likes of Netflix. With a more powerful content lineup and equally popular brand name recognition, the stand-alone service would no doubt be a compelling asset for HBO and Time Warner going forward as it could accelerate HBO's sales growth.
In a recent interview, HBO Chief Executive Richard Plepler explained his thoughts on the subject, "It's a sin to leave money on the table." He further added, "We will not be caught without the ability to pivot should we decide that pivoting is the right thing to do."
The possibility of a stand-alone service from HBO is exciting from both a consumer's point of view as well as an investor's. The company could put to market a service that offers one of the best original television lineups ever and would be a worthy adversary to traditional streaming companies like Netflix.
However, even without the stand-alone service, HBO is still firing on all cylinders. It remains the most valuable asset that Time Warner has at the current time.