Forget winter: HBO a la carte is coming.
At a Time Warner Inc. Investors Meeting today, HBO chairman Richard Plepler said that his company would offer a standalone streaming service at some point in 2015.
Noting that there are roughly ten million homes in America with broadband access but no cable service – a number expected to keep rising – Plepler said, “That is a large and growing opportunity that should no longer be left untapped. It is time to remove all barriers to those who want HBO. So, in 2015, we will launch a stand-alone, over-the-top, HBO service in the United States. We will work with our current partners. And, we will explore models with new partners. All in, there are 80 million homes that do not have HBO and we will use all means at our disposal to go after them.”
Plepler offered no details beyond that, nor did HBO corporate communications have any when I checked in with them. The idea is in an embryonic stage, but as something the company plans to do next year, it was something Plepler felt he should announce at the meeting.
The comment about working with HBO’s current partners is a reference to why HBO Go hasn’t, to this point, been made available a la carte. HBO’s business model is built on people subscribing, which in turn benefits the cable and satellite providers who are required in order to get HBO. If HBO becomes available away from your pricey Comcast or Cablevision package, then the service in turn becomes less valuable to those providers, and the price they pay HBO goes down.
So HBO has until now resisted the popular demand for a standalone version of HBO Go. Earlier this year, HBO made a deal with Amazon Prime to stream archival HBO shows like “The Sopranos” and “The Wire,” plus three-year-old (or more) seasons of most current HBO series – with some notable exceptions like “Game of Thrones.” That seemed an attempt to feed some of the demand for an unbundled version of HBO, but at some point, Plelpler and company decided to go for the full thing – which will, presumably, include the adventures of Daenerys, her dragons, and the other fun-loving “Thrones” characters.
I don’t know much about accounting (or even math), but I have to assume that HBO has projected the money they will make on this service, however it functions, will exceed whatever the company loses from cable subscriber fees.
It’s a brave new world, where more and more television content has become available without need of traditional television distribution. For a while, a standalone HBO was one of the great white whales of the cord-cutter movement. Now, it’s in sight.
What does everybody else think? Obviously, we have to wait on many details, but are you excited that you may not have to keep using your parents’/neighbor’s/cousin’s HBO Go login? If you’re a cable subscriber, would this make you more likely to cut the cord, or do you enjoy too much about the live TV experience (including live sports, the biggest of the white whales) to consider it yet?
UPDATE: Having thought and talked about the news some more over the last hour, I have some theories on what this service might look like.
First, note that nowhere in Plelpler’s brief remarks does he refer to HBO Go. That seems deliberate, and my guess is that this service, whatever it is, will not be identical to HBO Go, which offers not only all current shows (and allows you to watch some of them live if you’re away from your cable box and TV), but a voluminous library of HBO-owned series. (i.e., no “Larry Sanders Show” or “Dream On,” but just about everything HBO both owns the rights to and isn’t embarrassed of).
Second, HBO did just sign that big and presumably very lucrative Amazon deal earlier this year, which I imagine had some language regarding what would happen if HBO wanted to offer up its own a la carte service.
Third, Plelper does note a desire to talk with “our current partners” in the cable industry. Even if this will be a goldmine many years from now, it seriously jeopardizes HBO’s very lucrative current relationships with the cable and satellite industries. So they have to throw some kind of bone to the Comcasts of the world.
So my guess is that this service, whatever it’s called and however much it winds up costing, will not offer all the features of HBO Go, but some kind of compromise that tries to keep everyone mostly happy. Something like an inverse of the Amazon deal – only current series, and only the recent seasons of those series – might make sense, possibly with some limitation beyond that to discourage people from just canceling their cable subscription the day the service goes into effect. Some commenters below have already suggested the kind of delay Hulu has with some of its shows, where new episodes aren’t available until 8 days after they’ve aired via traditional means. You’re still getting access to the episodes for a theoretical fraction of the cost of cable+HBO, but you have to spend a week avoiding “Game of Thrones” spoilers.
There’s definitely a chance it could be a fully-featured version of HBO Go under another name, but given all the players involved, I’m guessing not. Right now, all we have are Plelper’s words above.