HBO strengthens ties to Bay Area as center of gravity in media shifts

Premium cable network HBO has held two major events in the Bay Area in the last two weeks

The notion that HBO has left its heart in the Bay Area is no accident.

The premium cable network has held two major events there in the last two weeks. The first was the unveiling of its new stand-alone streaming service, HBO Now, as part of a deal with Apple Inc.; and then came Monday night's lavish Season 5 premiere for fantasy drama "Game of Thrones."

"We love to be in San Francisco," Richard Plepler, the network's chairman and chief executive, told The Times ahead of the premiere screening. "We were here just a couple of weeks ago for the Apple launch, which was very exciting. And we're thrilled to be back for the 'Thrones' premiere. It just made sense. It's becoming a very natural habitat for us. [Silicon] Valley has embraced us in ways that are very dynamic."

The center of gravity in media has been shifting to San Francisco and Silicon Valley. And HBO's attention to the tech hub underscores the importance of branching beyond the traditional home base of New York and Hollywood as it strives to keep its television kingdom relevant in the digital era.

The $14.99-per-month HBO Now service will go live next month — in time for the fifth season of HBO's hit series "Game of Thrones" — and Apple is serving as the exclusive digital device partner.

Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook this month touted the popularity of "Game of Thrones" as one reason his company was happy to partner with HBO. Previous "Game of Thrones" premieres have been held in Los Angeles, New York, London and San Francisco. But none had reached the scale of Monday's festivities.

Time Warner Inc., HBO's parent, spared no expense at the premiere held at the War Memorial Opera House, with roughly 3,000 attendees. About 1,000 of those were invited to a subsequent party at San Francisco City Hall, where "Game of Thrones" creator George R.R. Martin watched as belly dancers performed and the line to take a photo on the Iron Throne was significantly longer than the food and bar lines.

Tech bigwigs in attendance included Marc Benioff, CEO of cloud computing company SalesForce.com; Twitter Inc. co-founder Christopher Isaac "Biz" Stone; and Instagram founder Michel "Mike" Krieger.

HBO teamed with another tech giant, Facebook, to live-stream the affair to fans.

And Plepler was quick to boast of HBO's other tech-friendly accomplishments. He noted how the posting of the "Game of Thrones" trailer on Facebook during this year's Super Bowl notched 28 million views, and lauded HBO's subscription video-on-demand deal with Amazon.com for providing more exposure to its content.

Plepler underscored the importance of putting a stake in San Francisco in today's landscape — whether that's doing business with Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or Snapchat. And he expects to expand HBO's relationships in Silicon Valley in the coming years as new apps or platforms spring up.

"Along with our current partners in the cable and telecommunication business, we're expanding the pie to reach different audiences that love the network and want to be connected in any way possible," Plepler said. "You have to adapt to new habits. We want to create as many ways as possible for people to connect to our brand."

As competition for viewers rises to new heights, particularly from online content providers such as Netflix Inc. and Amazon.com, it's only smart business for HBO to strengthen its relationship with the aristocracy of Silicon Valley, who can keep the network a formidable player in the race.

There are about 10 million homes in the U.S. with high-speed Internet service but without a pay-TV subscription. And networks are searching for new ways of courting those cord-cutting younger consumers, who are more inclined to get their entertainment from a variety of streaming services than pay for a cable or satellite package.

The first three months of 2015 have made that more clear than ever, as evidenced by the slew of announcements of so-called over-the-top services.

Sony Corp. plans to launch its own TV offering for its PlayStation game console. Dish Network last month rolled out its Internet-delivered service called Sling TV, which starts at $20 a month. And Verizon also has its eye on an Internet pay-TV service.

"Everyone in the video ecosystem recognizes that online and mobile delivery is their No. 1 priority," said Will Richmond, a longtime cable executive and publisher of VideoNuze.com. "And everyone is trying to figure it out."

 

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