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since 1997 | by maryann johanson

question of the day: Is HBO going online in the right way?

I’ve long been an advocate of TV shows being made available online, but it seems to me that HBO has it entirely wrong:

Time Warner Cable, the second-largest cable operator in the country, is working with customers here to test a subscriber model for online TV viewing. Residents who pay for HBO can watch “Big Love,” “Entourage” and other programs on their computers, using special software and a personal log-in. People who are not HBO subscribers are barred from the service.

What? The very people HBO should be targeting — those who are not subscribers — are barred? Shouldn’t HBO be trying to rope nonsubscribers in with an offer of, say, a buck an episode? How does online viewing help HBO if it’s not bringing in more revenue than airing a show only over cable?

But the cablecasters just don’t get it, anymore than the broadcasters get it:

There are also signs that broadcasters and cable networks are worried that their initial, highly publicized push to put some of their programs online may be threatening the higher revenue they bring in when the same material runs on regular television. Cable networks are loath to put programs online unless they can maintain the per-subscriber fee that they receive from distributors.

It’s like the buggy-whip manufacturers are simply pretending cars don’t exist, instead of retooling their factories right now to make steering-wheel covers.

Another trend that terrifies television networks and distributors is the prospect that Web video will move from the PC to the television itself. Products intended to bridge that gap, like the Apple TV set-top box and the Roku digital video player, are now used by only a small percentage of people but could become more popular.

Of course they’re going to become more popular. The Web and TV are going to be the same sooner than these poor deluded folks realize, and no amount of holding their breath will change that.

Or am I wrong? Is HBO going online in the right way?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me.)



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  • Ryan H

    Let’s be clear here, any online offering that is more hassle than downloading off a torrent site is going about it the wrong way. At the moment, video downloads are not perfect but they are straightforward. So, if I find that your service is harder to use than just downloading the episode, your service has just failed.

  • eric-jon rössel waugh

    Yeah, this is sad. The future of television is like a magazine subscription, on a show-by-show basis. You buy an individual episode or a season pass, and you are alerted whenever a new episode is available, to watch at your leisure.

    You can browse by person or studio names, title, genre, or keyword; the service has some Amazon/Netflix-like filters to suggest other shows you might like — based on the ratings of other people who have liked what you like.

    “Channels”, instead of being constant real-time feeds, would be collections of content from a particular distributor — menageries of material, if you will. You go to the Warner Channel to see all the shows they have to offer; the Disney Channel to see their content. NBC would have its offerings. It would be up to each distributor to determine which and how many shows to make available and when, and how to promote them.

    Advertising would be absent from the actual content, once received — rightly so, as you’ve paid for it. I’m sure they’d find somewhere to stick it, though I’m having trouble thinking of an appropriate and functional place. What else is new.

  • eric-jon rössel waugh

    There would be a place for some live feeds, of course. News and community access would be important. This is mostly about the dismantling of the current network and scheduling model.

  • The real reason this seems like a bad idea is that not only do you have to be a subscriber to HBO, you ALSO have to subscribe to Time Warner Cable AND broadband internet service through Time Warner Cable. I’m actually not seeing that HBO gets anything out of this at all, it just seems like Time Warner is using HBO’s shows as a gimmick to sell their internet service. Which isn’t even available in my state AFAIK.

    On the other hand, this could simply be a beta test of their software, and they’re limiting it to the people that they already know are interested because they don’t want to turn off new subscribers with undiscovered bugs. In which case we are all being totally unfair.

    I do still think that a model based on the one used by the pioneering independent-music store eMusic would work best: new subscribers get a certain amount of stuff for free or discounted, after which there is a tiered subscription system, where the more you pay the more you can use, on a per-month basis. These could include, say, a series-only package and a movie-only package, both of which cost less than a regular HBO subscription.

  • I just recently started using Hulu instead of downloading torrents for some shows. I got some software called PlayOn that lets me watch Hulu on my PS3, and thus on my big screen without any hassle of laptops and cables and mice, etc… it’s not quite as high quality, but it’s close enough that I’m willing to endure it. ABC’s online offerings also work that way, and I no longer have to download Lost and other ABC shows, since they’re available the very next day.

    The broadcasters are on the right track; I don’t mind watching a couple ads throughout the episode in exchange for the ability to pause and watch whenever I want.

    The HBO thing is silly — their shows are already available online for free; they should just start a private tracker with enforced share ratios and a $5/month subscription fee, and they’d have a winner.

  • FrankS

    Shouldn’t HBO be trying to rope nonsubscribers in with an offer of, say, a buck an episode?

    HBO has episodes of some of their shows on iTunes for $1.99 ea.

  • MaryAnn

    The real reason this seems like a bad idea is that not only do you have to be a subscriber to HBO, you ALSO have to subscribe to Time Warner Cable AND broadband internet service through Time Warner Cable.

    Why not just shoot themselves in the foot?

    HBO has episodes of some of their shows on iTunes for $1.99 ea.

    That’s more what I’m talking about. But the linked article in the original post suggests that they’re not happy about that way of delivering content.

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