How HBO is molding its little sister channel into a top competitor

Cinemax is trying to follow in the footsteps of HBO.
Cinemax is trying to follow in the footsteps of HBO.
Image: publicity still from Cinemax's The Knick
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“Skinemax” was struggling. In 2010, subscriber numbers at the US cable channel Cinemax, which earned that derisive nickname with its reputation for late-night soft-core pornography, were flat and starting to trend downward. The channel’s action movies and porn were still performing pretty well, but the brand was in dire need of reinvigoration.

That’s when Michael Lombardo, the head of programming at Cinemax’s parent company, HBO, went to the head of HBO’s miniseries division, Kary Antholis, to say that he was concerned for the long-term future of Cinemax. Lombardo and Antholis decided that the only way to put HBO’s sister channel on the map was to get into the original content game—as other channels had been doing in recent years.

Four years and four original shows later, Cinemax has shown that it can produce. The Aug. 8 premiere of Cinemax’s new and most ambitious series to date, The Knick, drew a modest but respectable 354,000 viewers. Starring Clive Owen as a drug-addicted experimental surgeon in 1900s New York, The Knick is by far the most hyped series Cinemax has had since it started making original shows.

A far cry from Cinemax’s most successful series to date, the pulpy, explosive BansheeThe Knick signals a shift to more high-concept ambitions, with the A-list movie director Steven Soderbergh directing every episode of the first season.

“[The Knick] was dark, it was graphic, and it allowed us to make an even more sophisticated, cinematic footprint in the television world,” Antholis told Quartz. ”Each episode is a little film.”

But Cinemax’s leadership doesn’t want to stop there. “HBO will always be the big brother,” Antholis, who was put in charge of Cinemax’s original content, said. “Our goal is to build Cinemax to the point where it’s the preferred second tier in premium television.”

In order to become that ”preferred second tier,” Cinemax will have to leapfrog Starz and Showtime in subscribers—or at least, come close enough to the two. Cinemax still lags the three top premium cable channels: As of March, it had about 14 million US subscribers to Starz’s 22 million, Showtime’s 23 million, and HBO’s 29 million.

But it’s gradually gaining ground. As the channel rolled out new original shows over the past four years, cable companies have started to bundle it more often with HBO. Cinemax is growing its subscription base at a much faster rate than the top three (though of course, off a smaller base).

% increase in US subscribers of premium channels

The benefit of having the world leader in pay-TV under the same umbrella cannot be underestimated. Every step of the way, HBO has helped to delicately and strategically transform Cinemax into a major player. “Mike [Lombardo] has made a commitment to using HBO to help give a boost to the Cinemax brand,” Antholis said.

As evidence of that, The Knick was re-broadcast on HBO a day after its Cinemax premiere. The encore showing on HBO nearly doubled the amount of viewers the premiere garnered on Cinemax originally. HBO also put the premiere on its streaming app, HBO Go, and on demand, hoping to give loyal HBO subscribers a taste of what they can now watch on Cinemax. “We wanted to get eyeballs on it,” Antholis said.

The 2013 premiere of Banshee actually performed better on Cinemax than The Knick did (it had 483,000 viewers in its original time slot to The Knick‘s 354,000)—but Antholis said he isn’t worried. The Knick was given the Friday night time slot—known to be rather unkind to shows—because it gives the channel’s mostly middle-aged male demographic (many of whom are home on Friday nights) the entire weekend to watch the premiere, he said. Cinemax’s action- and sex-oriented audience may need some time to adjust to the slower, more sophisticated medical drama.

Besides, HBO has for some time operated on the principle that doubling down on its prestige and expanding its subscriber base are more important than the exact number of people who watch a show any given night. Cinemax renewed The Knick for a second season long before it debuted.

If HBO makes good on its commitment to prop up Cinemax, Showtime and Starz should watch out. But for now, Cinemax seems happy just to shed its “Skinemax” reputation.

“We are not allocating resources to late-night programming,” Antholis said. “We are evolving past that.”