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Next TV: HBO Seeking ‘Ubiquitous’ Distribution

Los Angeles – A strong feeling that going over-the-top would create incremental growth for HBO was a primary reason why the premium programmer pulled the trigger on HBO Now, its new  standalone offering.

“It was done to grow,” Michael Lombardo, HBO’s president of programming, said here Thursday at NewBay Media’s Next TV Summit during an interview with Mark Robichaux, editorial director for Broadcasting & Cable and Multichannel News.

Lombardo said the stand-alone offering, currently offered by Apple and Cablevision Systems and coming soon to Google’s Android and Android TV platforms, was made to resonate with cord-cutters, cord-nevers and other younger consumers who are steering clear of big bundles as they get out of college and land their first jobs.

For them, “the idea of paying $125 per month for a cable package in addition to starting life [as an adult], is daunting,” he said.

While time will soon tell if HBO’s strategy will succeed, the programmer was willing to take a shot.

“It just felt that it's better to be in front of the pack than the last guy there,” Lombardo said. 

And the pay TV models are shifting as more and more content options become available to consumers.

“You can no longer rely on someone channel surfing to find you,” Lombardo said. “You can no longer rely on Comcast marketing you. You have to have a relationship with the viewer that means something." 

Lombardo also talked about HBO’s decision to offer HBO Now through distribution partners rather than do a direct-to-consumer play.

“We are determined to figure out a way to be ubiquitous in terms of who's distributing us,” he said. “When we made decision to go over-the-top, we made a decision not to handle credit and collections.”

Given the way viewing habits have shifted away from linear, appointment-based viewing to on-demands, Lombardo said he has been surprised that ratings for Game of Thrones have left The Sopranos in the dust (the finale for season five of GoT delivered a record 8.1 million viewers for the network).

“We never saw it [Game of Thrones] as a numbers phenomenon,” Lombardo said. “When we launched Game of Thrones it was a different world,” he added, noting that there’s now a multiplicity of premium networks, basic cable networks and emerging platforms that are all in the business of delivering scripted, branded content.

“Not in our wildest dream” did HBO expect to see ratings for GoT surpass The Sopranos, Lombardo said.

And what about the biggest question GoT fans had following the end of season five: Is Jon Snow really dead?

“I accepted the fact that there were no rules and anybody could go, but somehow [I thought] Jon Snow seemed off-limits,” Lombardo said. “As of today, he’s still dead.”

One thing that won’t happen: “They’re not going to bring him back for ratings…they’re scripting season six as we speak, and I’ll let you know when I read the outlines,” Lombardo quipped.

Lombardo also sees much more GoT to come for HBO as the show forges ahead into storylines that surpass the books. “We’re in season six. I’m hopeful for a seven and eight.”