If you've been considering cutting the cord to your cable-TV subscription, HBO may have just handed you the scissors. At Time Warner's investor meeting Wednesday, CEO Richard Plepler announced that beginning in 2015, HBO will offer a standalone online service, allowing broadband customers without cable TV to subscribe.
This move has been speculated--and by some cordcutters, fantasized--about for years. But the thinking was that it was some time off, if ever, because HBO had more to lose by ticking off cable providers than it had to gain from broadband content delivery. Apparently the balance has shifted, with 10 million U.S. households getting broadband-only service. As 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 . . . 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.
The statement leaves a lot of details open--price, how much HBO programming will be available--but the upshot appears to be: you'll be able to get pay for HBO streaming without cable or satellite service, essentially buying HBO GO or another, possibly more limited, online service. Does this makes sense for HBO? It seems to think so, aiming for a combination of tapping into new households and, maybe, monetizing some of those cable-less fans who've been borrowing HBO GO logins to watch Game of Thrones. (Not to mention possibly getting a competitive edge on Netflix.)
Without access to the numbers, I can only speculate on the math. HBO does risk making less money from cable carriers, since HBO's service is worth less to the carriers if the carriers' customers can get HBO without them. Maybe HBO plans on making up the difference in volume, or maybe the standalone package will be priced accordingly higher.
But however this particular deal works out, this is a potentially exciting development for TV viewers tired of watching their cable packages swell into bloated, gold-laden barges of tied-together offerings topping $200 a month. If big player HBO sees that it can offer a cable-free package and survive, that may lead the way for companies in other pricey TV sectors--live sports, for instance--which you've had to agree to buy a giant cable package to get.
It's easier to imagine a future in which you cobble together a decent menu of entertainment with Internet service, over-the-air HD, and some combination of HBO, Netflix, Amazon and so forth. That cord-cutting, a la carte paradise isn't here yet. But HBO may just have unleashed the dragon.
[Non-disclosure disclosure: HBO and Time Warner Cable used to be sister companies of TIME within Time Warner; Time Warner Cable and publisher Time Inc. were spun off as separate companies by Time Warner, which still owns HBO.]