How to quantify Bill Simmons value to HBO? (TL;DR: not TV ratings)

 

Several have asked me how many viewers Bill Simmons’ new show “Any Given Wednesday” will have to draw to be a success. That’s probably the wrong question to ask if it’s true that HBO is paying Simmons between $7 million and $9 million per year.

If Simmons is being paid that much the people most interested in the ratings for his new show won’t be people who visit sites like this, media critics and industry observers, it will be Bill Maher and John Oliver!

“Real Time with Bill Maher” routinely averages over a million viewers for its initial Friday night telecast. The same is true for Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (at least during the portion of the season it follows “Game of Thrones,” “Silicon Valley” and “Veep”). Last year, when subsequent airings, DVR, on-demand, and streaming were added in, the spring episodes of John Oliver’s show (which, again, has the great Sunday night lead-ins) averaged 4.6 million viewers per episode and Bill Maher’s show averaged 3.9 million viewers per episode.

Of course, by that same accounting, “Game of Thrones” episodes averaged 19.1 million viewers, but doing less than 1/4th of “Game of Thrones” is no shame since those shows cost much (much, much) less to produce.

Beyond its premiere I can’t see Simmons’ show averaging even half the number Maher’s and Oliver’s shows average. I have no axe to grind with Simmons and I wouldn’t bet your house on my prediction, but if I’m wrong I’ll gladly donate $1,000 to Simmons’ favorite charity (and if his favorite charity happens to be Bill Simmons, so be it!) I just don’t see it being a ratings juggernaut.

When the first ratings for “Any Given Wednesday” come out on June 23 (the day after the show premieres on HBO) I suspect we’ll see some “Holy #$%! HBO is paying $7 million to $9 million a year for THOSE ratings?” But even if the ratings aren’t great there’s a mix of value to Simmons that transcends ratings.

  1. Being in the business of Bill Simmons
  2. HBO documentaries
  3. New Digital offerings
  4. New Subscribers
  5. Ratings

Being in the business of Bill Simmons

This is an intangible, but sometimes that’s how it goes. Don’t dismiss the idea that HBO simply wanted to be in the business of Bill Simmons and that there is value in that to HBO separate from ratings. Even if the TV show was all Simmons was doing, I think it’s analogous to NBC loving being in the business of Amy Poehler and Tina Fey. Talented writers and actors who, at least TV-wise, outside of “Saturday Night Live” were in the critically acclaimed but low-rated comedy bin. Nonetheless, “30 Rock” and “Parks and Recreation” had 7-year runs.

Being in the business of Bill Simmons gets lots of media coverage like this big spread in The Hollywood Reporter. Sure, that’s almost exclusively about Bill Simmons and not HBO, but this is the business HBO has chosen.

HBO Documentaries

HBO has been a documentary powerhouse but during Simmons tenure at ESPN, at least on the sports front 30 for 30 surpassed HBO. Nobody can fault HBO for thinking Simmons adds value on that front.

New Digital Offerings

Since HBO reportedly only has a minority stake in The Ringer, I’m excluding that from the mix of thinking here. I’m thinking more about things like “After the Thrones” which doesn’t air on HBO but is available via HBO Now, HBO Go and HBO On-Demand. I’d consider “After the Thrones” a low-budget production (even relative to something like “Talking Dead”) but the thing with low-budget productions is they don’t have to draw much of an audience to be worthwhile. It’s a good thing for HBO to dabble in.

New Subscribers

We know that HBO charges $15 a month for HBO Now and that, at least for reasonable cable, telco & satellite companies and their customers, that sets the ceiling at $15/mo. Figuring out how much HBO actually gets from the cable, telco and satellite companies involves more magic than math. I’m getting HBO free for a year and I presume my provider is paying HBO something for that, but I also presume it’s nowhere near $15/mo.

Still, nobody should think HBO wacky for thinking Simmons might be able to convert a few of his nearly five million Twitter followers into HBO customers.  If a mere 50,000 per year sign up for HBO due to Simmons, even if HBO only gets half of the revenue  that’s nearly $5 million/year — a big chunk of Simmons’ reported salary. 100,000 new HBO Now customers per year and Simmons is a big one-man profit center for HBO.

Ratings

There are no ratings yet! But even if the “nowhere near Maher’s & Oliver’s numbers” prediction is correct, I don’t think it matters (except maybe to Messrs. Maher and Oliver.) And even if low ratings generate a lot of coverage about low ratings, I still don’t think it will matter to HBO for quite a while, if ever*.

*If, unrelated to Simmons, HBO starts shedding subscribers and is under financial pressure all bets are off. 

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