HBO to Offer HBO GO to Non Cable Subscribers, But At What Cost?

By  · Published on October 15th, 2014


For as long as I can remember, HBO was cable TV. It was the best reason to start paying for television long before it was synonymous with the new wave of quality series programming. But a lot of its success and popularity had to do with how it was packaged for subscribers, always the primary premium channel offered in the tiered-pricing model. Most of us who grew up in the first decades of cable would have HBO before we would have Showtime and the rest, even before we’d have HBO partner Cinemax.

Now, HBO could be the first blow that kills cable. There have been non-lethal jabs in recent years in the forms of Netflix, iTunes, Hulu and networks that offer shows on their own websites, but Time Warner’s announcement that HBO GO will be offered as a standalone service next year, that’s a deadly punch. All the people who have cable mainly so they can watch Game of Thrones, True Blood, Boardwalk Empire and whatever hits come about in the wake of the departure of the latter two can drop it and go a la carte.

What that means for the cable companies isn’t certain yet, especially when details of this announcement are slim on account of “proprietary concerns,” which may be referring to those various providers. Will there really be a massive cut in subscriptions, or do most people with cable recognize that they also enjoy House Hunters, The Walking Dead, Duck Dynasty and of course sports, not to mention the comfort of a DVR, and so won’t be changing anything?

When I ask at what cost HBO’s standalone service will be, I don’t mean the monthly fee charged for subscribers. But I’ll comment on that first. Considering cable subscribers can add on HBO (and all its bundled channels, like HBO Family) for somewhere between $10 and $20, then HBO GO can’t really be any cheaper. Otherwise cable customers would logically chop their HBO package and go with HBO GO instead, even if it didn’t come with every movie airing regularly on HBO and available on HBO On Demand. We shouldn’t expect that this will be $7-$8 like Netflix and Hulu.

The bigger cost I refer to in the headline is a long run effect and potential monetary result for both the industry and for viewers. Let’s say that everyone is dying to watch Twin Peaks 2.0 when it hits Showtime but they don’t want to get cable and/or add the channel? Maybe Showtime will also follow HBO and offer its Showtime Anytime to non-cable-subscribers. And then more and more channels do the same. It seems like a longtime dream come true to get to pick only a la carte channels that I want, but they will add up substantially to more than a cable subscription costs, and by then maybe the cable companies will be so broken up that we won’t have that option anymore.

Or, the providers will survive but mainly by raising their prices, pushing for new deals with different networks and channels that create blackouts during negotiation periods and eventually kill those channels that can’t work it out. Say goodbye to more niche programming channels, including Turner Classic Movies (which I hear is already close enough to going off the air if not going away completely – there’s another channel I could see trying to follow HBO to an online service option), and ratings-hurt networks like Al Jazeera America. I guess some people won’t mind having a more manageable channel lineup again, like in the old days.

I’m reminded of what’s always been talked about with the idea of studios and distributors abandoning Netflix to develop their own subscription services linked to their own respective libraries only. That is a good business move for the content producers, but it not only harms a company like Netflix but it also means consumers will wind up paying a lot more over a spread of different content providers. Interestingly enough, though Disney launched its own streaming service this year in spite of having a deal in place with Netflix that still doesn’t even ramp up in titles for another two years. The DisneyMovies Anywhere service, though, is buy to own rather than rental or subscription.

In a way, Netflix and HBO GO are significant parallels for different industries, as the former is being seen as a major threat to the movie theater industry with its recently announced day-and-date plans and exclusive deals for titles starring notable marquee names like Adam Sandler. Netflix also has been a threat to cable companies in the way that many past cable subscribers have gone to Netflix as an alternative rather than a supplement. But it’s never been a major threat to cable the way HBO GO could be. We’re definitely moving into an age where cinemas and cable boxes are beginning to look like things of the past, my generation’s equivalent to the vaudeville stage and cathedral-style radios.

“It is time to remove all barriers to those who want HBO,” said the network’s CEO Richard Plepler during an investor’s call announcing the by-any-measure plan. That’s the statement I find to be the oddest in all of this. It’s not as if HBO is unavailable to anyone in the US, albeit through the cost of cable. But if it’s just a number of hit shows that those currently without HBO want, why not just let them be available on iTunes, which is possibly more profitable? Also, there has to be some consideration made for the fact that a lot of people who don’t have HBO and use their parents or friends’ passwords to watch GOT aren’t necessarily going to suddenly want to pay monthly for the possibility.

Yes, a lot of people want HBO, but they want it free, as a right. When do we get that announcement?

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.