HBO Leveraging The Rock To Get Around The Cord

Last week, HBO announced that the pilot episodes of two shows, Ballers and The Brink, were to be made available for exclusive streaming on Facebook (although the programs will remain available on HBO platforms such as HBO Now and HBO Go). The Ballers pilot was hosted on Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s personal page, which has over 50 million followers.

Without a doubt, 2015 has been a good year for Mr. Johnson. Aside from his role in Furious 7, the highest grossing film of 2015 ($1.5 billion in worldwide box office ticket sales as of this week), The Rock is the lead star and executive producer of the new HBO series Ballers, which follows his success as the leading actor in San Andreas, the disaster-film that grossed nearly $55 million at the box office in its opening weekend a few weeks ago.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s star power exemplifies how one can successfully leverage a career in professional wrestling and transition it to the big screen. While wrestlers such as Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin, and Rowdy Roddy Piper found limited accomplishments on the big screen (remember John Carpenter’s alien-invasion movie, They Live ?), none have come close to the financial achievements of The Rock. Johnson has also managed the rare feat of cross-generational appeal, and over the past 15 years, he has been nominated for a number of Kid’s Choice Awards, Teen Choice Awards, and MTV Movie Awards, primarily in recognition of his performance in action-based roles.

However, The Rock’s bond with millennials (90% of whom are Facebook users), is merely the beginning of a path to successful ‘new media’ execution.

For starters, we know that millennials, the largest consumer group in the United States at nearly 80 million, are behind the “cord-cutter / cord-never” trend of watching TV. Nielsen figures reported earlier this year showed fewer millennials watch traditional TV, although their appetite for video remains insatiable. Millennials are spending more time viewing content online, and are leading the charge in ‘binge’ or ‘marathon viewing’ by watching online video from providers such as Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and other streaming sources, including HBO GO.

Results from Leger May 2015 research supports this trend. More than half (56%) of adults overall reported having ‘binged’ on a TV show in the past 7 days. Binge viewership is highest among those ages 18-29, with nearly seven in ten (69%) watching multiple shows during one sitting.

The propensity of binge viewing among Millennials is as interesting as the platforms they use to do so. Netflix is the primary platform used when binge viewing, followed by YouTube, the “On Demand” service available from a TV provider, and Hulu. The use of the HBO platforms for binge viewing was ranked #5, having tied with watching a marathon on TV and by using their DVR. All of these still ranked higher than using Amazon/Amazon Prime, an App from a television service provider, Android Market, Starz, Showtime Anytime, and iTunes/Apple TV.

Compared to Millennials, the 30-39 year old group has a slightly different priority with their binge viewing habits. While Netflix and YouTube also lead the way (1 and 2, respectively), Amazon/Amazon Prime pops among this group at #3, while the HBO vehicles show up at #6. Despite the difference in ranking, usage of the HBO platforms for binge viewing are similar across these two age groups (18-29: 18% ; 30-39: 19% ). This is not the case with usage of Amazon/Amazon Prime, as those in the older Millennial/Younger Gen X group are twice as likely as their younger counterparts (30% vs. 14%, respectively) to use this service for binge viewing.

And here is where the ‘pilot streaming’ deals with Facebook get interesting. Prior to last week’s announcement by HBO, Amazon already had a similar deal in place. In early June, Amazon partnered with Facebook to allow Facebook users the ability to stream the pilot episode of Catastrophe for a limited time before the 6-episode series launched exclusively on Amazon Prime starting June 19.

Original programs such as House of Cards and Orange Is The New Black have helped Netflix gain and retain subscribers amidst an ever-growing cord-cutting, binge viewing environment. In order to determine the extent that exclusive and/or original content can be leveraged elsewhere to drive subscriptions, the deals HBO and Amazon have made with Facebook are disruptive in the sense they are innovative approaches for making premium content available to those who have already cut the cord, or are simply not willing to be a pay TV subscriber in the first place. Millennials fall firmly into this category.

Consider HBO Now. With a free first-month teaser and $14.95 each month thereafter, HBO Now offers Apple product users the ability to stream HBO content (and from Google Chromecast and Android TV later this year). Despite what may be a hefty price tag for an app as the monthly subscription price exceeds Hulu ($13), HBO Now remains a very cost effective alternative to an otherwise substantial cable contract or monthly bill.

So, are people actually buying the HBO app? The answer is a resounding ‘yes.’ According to Digital Trends, the HBO Now platform is, at present, one of the most profitable apps on the iTunes store. The attractive trial period offer, the exclusivity with Apple, and the value of the product itself (content worth paying to watch) all encompass a marketing strategy that appears to be industry leading.

HBO appears well-poised to leverage similar tactics via social media to attract more subscribers to the HBO Now app, particularly Millennials. With a price point similar to a few overpriced lattes per month, the app offers Millennials the opportunity to binge on all the well-known shows that HBO has to offer, while utilizing Facebook and the ‘People’s Champion’ to tease Millennials into purchasing premium content without having to actually connect the cord; which appears to be a cost-effective, appropriate and timely strategy.

Results based upon a survey of 1,013 U.S. adults, from Leger’s 2015 May omnibus.

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