A famous Oatmeal cartoon showed the cartoonist making a good faith effort to buy Game of Thrones. He finds that the show is not available on iTunes, Netflix, Amazon, or Hulu. He tries to buy HBO Go, but it's only available as an add-on to a cable package. Finally, the cartoonist gives up trying to pay for the show and pirates it through Bit Torrent. This cartoon is probably the best ever expression of the "piracy is a customer service issue" thesis.
In a way, this doesn't make any sense for HBO, which makes its money off subscriptions and would ostensibly welcome an opportunity to sell subscriptions to another market segment. HBO claims that (a) people aren't interested in a la carte HBO Go and (b) the transaction costs are too high to do their own billing, etc. The technical term for these explanations is "bullshit." Cord cutters are a relatively small market segment but a fast growing one and I think it unlikely that cable subscriptions will fully rebound when the recession ends since the issue isn't just price but convenience. Moreover, I see no reason why HBO can't handle billing and other logistical issues when the Metropolitan Opera and the NFL, not to mention Netflix, don't seem to have any trouble running their own separately billed streaming video services. Of course there are transaction costs associated with billing, but it can't possibly be anywhere close to the cost of a basic cable package.
And here we get to the real issue. It's not that HBO would like to cut out the middleman and sell to us directly, rather requiring you to buy basic cable is the whole point. Cable is a total cash cow and a more flexible business model means lower revenues. The reason is that the incumbent business model of cable combines the features of bundling (basic cable) and a two-part tariff (premium cable channels) for a perfect storm of price discrimination. For much the same reason as Disneyland could only lose money if it sold a la carte tickets to Splash Mountain for $20 without requiring $80 park admission (which includes access to Main Street, Jungle Cruise, etc), cable companies would lose money if you could buy HBO Go for $20 without first buying basic cable (which includes access to ESPN, Mtv, etc). Basically, economic theory (and some reasonable assumptions about the structure of demand) suggests that an a la carte video market could not make as much money as a bundled video market.
So, that's why the cable companies don't want you to buy a la carte HBO Go, but why is that HBO's problem? Let's contrast it with the NFL. The NFL offers standalone access because the credible threat of a streaming business model gives them more leverage to negotiate with the MSOs. In contrast, HBO doesn't want leverage because most of its sister companies are part of the basic cable ecosystem. (They used to have an actual MSO as a sister company but they spun off Time Warner Cable in 2009). Time Warner makes a lot of money from HBO subscriptions, but it makes even more money from carriage fees on CNN, Cartoon Network, and most of the cable networks starting with the letter "T." Unlike HBO (which would do well under an a la carte model) most of these other channels rely more on channel-surfing audiences than cult followings and so couldn't sell subscriptions on their own and would have to settle for something like a Hulu Plus or Netflix business model, probably with less money per subscriber and far fewer subscribers than they currently get through basic cable. Basically, cord-cutting would help HBO but devastate the rest of the company. For what is a media conglomerate profited if it gain a few hundred thousand a la carte HBO Go subscriptions, and lose its carriage fees and ad revenue? What can a media conglomerate give in exchange for its Turner and WBTVG divisions?
Time Warner more or less acknowledges in their investor report that disruptive innovation could screw them: "Furthermore, advances in technology or changes in competitors' product and service offerings may require the Company to make additional research and development expenditures or offer products or services in a digital format without charge or at a lower price than offered in other formats." This is on the first page of the "risk factors" section of the report, whereas piracy doesn't come up until the third. This order is consistent with my own reading of the industry and with the history of the recorded music industry, the proximate problem of which is not piracy but digital singles.
So basically, we can call this the "HBO has to take one for the team" model. We can get a similar result with a slightly weaker model which doesn't require long-term corporate cross-subsidization but treats HBO as autonomous from the rest of Time Warner. In the short-term, HBO itself is highly dependent on cable companies. The target market for a la carte HBO Go would be households with broadband but no cable, or about 5% of all US households. This is dwarfed by the 20% of households that have cable but no broadband. Moreover, although 70% of households have both cable and broadband, most of them aren't familiar with streaming video through set-top devices. So as a rough ballpark, let's say that half of US households have cable but either lack broadband and or wouldn't know how to use it with a set-top device (even if they already own a Blu-Ray player or game console with built-in streaming support). This means that the number of households HBO could appeal to with a la carte HBO Go are one tenth as numerous as the households they rely on cable companies to reach. And HBO does rely on the cable companies to reach these households through marketing promotions and the like. If HBO figures that angering the cable companies could cost them even a small fraction of these households then they're better off alienating Matthew Inman and myself rather than angering Comcast. The same logic explains why Netflix is interested in creating a cable channel and recent rumors that Hulu will switch to the HBO Go business model.
Of course for the cable companies to punish HBO would require them to forgo their half of HBO subscription revenue. This sounds like cutting off your nose to spite your face but that's not unheard of, especially if doing so deters your face from pissing you off again by flirting with a disruptive business model. We see a similar dynamic with how theatrical exhibitors react whenever movie studios suggest closing the video release window from its current 17 weeks. (Ironically in this scenario it's the cable companies who are the innovators trying to disrupt the stodgy incumbents). For instance last year, Universal floated the idea of experimenting with tightening up the pay-per-view window for Tower Heist. The theaters were livid and threatened to boycott the test film. This despite the fact that the experiment was on ridiculously unappealing terms to the consumer: $60 to watch a mediocre film three weeks after theatrical premiere and that's only if you live in Atlanta or Portland. Ultimately Universal backed down, deciding it was better to keep their old trading partners happy than try to develop new ones.
(By the way, I'm sure you'll agree it's a total coincidence that Universal was bought by a cable company shortly before the Tower Heist incident. Similarly, a total coincidence that this same cable company has a history of playing hardball with internet companies that offer infrastructure for streaming video services that compete with cable TV).
All that is to say I can understand why HBO Go isn't available yet to cord cutters. Still, let's say that tomorrow HBO starts offering standalone HBO Go subscriptions (as I sincerely hope it does), how would I explain that? I could see this happening if HBO decides that the transition will happen eventually and it is better to do it while they can still do so favorably. We saw a similar dynamic ten years ago with the recorded music industry, which acceded to a low price point digital singles market as it saw its market share eroded by piracy, but only moderately so. In 2003, when the record labels agreed to participate in iTunes, unit sales were down about 15% from the pre-Napster peak, which wasn't fun but also wasn't catastrophic. Most people were still buying CDs when the record labels agreed to a legal digital singles market that would eventually destroy the CD market. They did so in order to transition consumers to a new model before most of us had fully committed to piracy. It's a lot easier to get someone to buy singles for $1 if they're used to buying CDs for $15 than if they're used to pirating singles for nothing. Similarly, as the number of cord-cutters increases this will be an increasingly attractive market for HBO, and not just because it can get these people as customers but because it can keep them from developing the habit of pirating content that isn't promptly made available through legitimate streaming markets. We may not be at that point yet, but I wouldn't be surprised if we reach it before HBO runs out of Fire and Ice novels to adapt.
We're all going to die and we all know it. This can be both a burden and a blessing.
In the heart of every parent lives the tightly coiled nightmare that his child will die. It might spring at logical times—when a toddler runs into the street, say—or it might sneak up in quieter moments. The fear is a helpful evolutionary motivation for parents to protect their children, but it's haunting nonetheless.
The ancient Stoic philosopher Epictetus advised parents to indulge that fear. “What harm is it, just when you are kissing your little child, to say: Tomorrow you will die?”he wrote in his Discourses.
Some might say Epictetus was an asshole. William Irvine thinks he was on to something.
“The Stoics had the insight that the prospect of death can actually make our lives much happier than they would otherwise be,” he says. “You’re supposed to allow yourself to have a flickering thought that someday you’re going to die, and someday the people you love are going to die. I’ve tried it, and it’s incredibly powerful. Well, I am a 21st-century practicing Stoic.”
People look to Amy Schumer and her fellow jokers not just to make fun of the world, but to make sense of it. And maybe even to help fix it.
This week, in a much-anticipated sketch on her Comedy Central show, Amy Schumer staged a trial of Bill Cosby in “the court of public opinion.” Schumer—her character, at any rate—played the role of the defense. “Let’s remind ourselves what’s at stake here,” she argued to the jury. “If convicted, the next time you put on a rerun of The Cosby Show you may wince a little. Might feel a little pang. And none of us deserve that. We don’t deserve to feel that pang.”
Her conclusion? “We deserve to dance like no one’s watching, and watch like no one’s raping.”
Ooof. This is the kind of thing that gets Inside Amy Schumer referred to as “the most feminist show on television,” and her act in general called, in a phrase that reveals as much about her craft as about Schumer herself, “comedy with a message.” But while Schumer’s work is operating at the vanguard of popular comedy, it’s also in line with the work being done by her fellow performers: jokes that tend to treat humor not just as an end in itself, but as a vehicle for making a point. Watch like no one’s raping.
The former speaker of the House is charged with lying to federal agents and evading financial reporting requirements, reportedly while attempting to conceal past sexual misconduct.
Updated on May 29, 2015, at 4:05 p.m.
Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert has been indicted on charges of lying to FBI agents and evading federal financial-reporting requirements, reportedly while paying a man to cover up past sexual misconduct.
Hastert, an Illinois Republican, was speaker from 1999 to 2007. BuzzFeed’s John Stanton notes that there were several high-profile congressional scandals in those years. Illinois is also a notorious hotbed for political corruption, as Roland Burris, Rod Blagojevich, George Ryan, and Jesse Jackson Jr. can attest.
But Hastert’s indictment seems to involve a darker story than political corruption. In or about 2010, according to the indictment, Hastert—a former high-school teacher and coach—met with an unnamed individual from Yorkville, Hastert’s hometown. They “discussed past misconduct by defendant against Individual A that had occurred years earlier.” In effect, Hastert fell victim to blackmail, the indictment alleges: He “agreed to provide Individual A $3.5 million in order to compensate for and conceal his prior misconduct against Individual A.” (Since leaving the House, Hastert has become a highly paid lobbyist.)
Some spoiler-y speculation on the final three episodes
With only three episodes left to go, Game of Thrones looks as though it once again has a lot of ground to cover before wrapping up a season. And so, for the curious and impatient among you, I’ll do my best to offer some quasi-informed speculation about what we might reasonably expect in these final weeks.
Note: I haven’t seen any of the remaining episodes, but I have read the books. The first five items below are spoiler-y, but the predictions in them do not derive from the George R. R. Martin novels. Rather, they’re guesswork based on what’s already happened on the show and on tidbits scattered across the web: a behind-the-scenes photo here, a close-read of a trailer there. (They could all, of course, turn out to be completely wrong.) The last four items, however, are based at least in part on events that take place in A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, so non-book-readers may want to skip them. And obviously anyone, book-reader or not, who’d prefer to go into these final episodes without preconceptions—who doesn’t want to know at least some of what will (probably) happen—should stop reading now.
Can a political system be democratically legitimate without being democratic?
The flaws in China’s political system are obvious. The government doesn’t even make a pretense of holding national elections and punishes those who openly call for multiparty rule. The press is heavily censored and the Internet is blocked. Top leaders are unconstrained by the rule of law. Even more worrisome, repression has been ramped up since Xi Jinping took power in 2012, suggesting that the regime is increasingly worried about its legitimacy.
Some China experts—most recently David Shambaugh of George Washington University—interpret these ominous signs as evidence that the Chinese political system is on the verge of collapse. But such an outcome is highly unlikely in the near future. The Communist Party is firmly in power, its top leader is popular, and no political alternative currently claims widespread support. And what would happen if the Party’s power did indeed crumble? The most likely result, in my view, would be rule by a populist strongman backed by elements of the country’s security and military forces. The new ruler might seek to buttress his legitimacy by launching military adventures abroad. President Xi would look tame by comparison.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Fresh from his breakout performance as Martin Luther King Jr. in 2014’s Selma, the actor discusses his radically different role in HBO’s chilling one-man film Nightingale.
Nightingale poses a challenge to its viewers from its opening scene on. Protagonist Peter Snowden (David Oyelowo) has done a terrible thing—only hints of the aftermath can be glimpsed on screen—and the audience is trapped in his house with him. The film, which premieres on HBO Friday, is an audacious one-man show—a series of deluded, sometimes charming, often tragic, occasionally frightening monologues delivered by a troubled veteran clearly in the midst of a dissociative crisis. Peter works in a menial job and lives with his mother at home, where Nightingale is entirely set, but, as he repeatedly states, his “circumstances have changed” in horrifying fashion.
An activist has made it so in France. Could he take his campaign global?
In 2010, U.S. supermarkets and grocery stores threw out 43 billion pounds, or $46.7 billion worth, of food, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). But if Arash Derambarsh had his way, that number would be zero. His goals are ambitious, but then again the municipal councilor from Courbevoie, France did manage to get a law passed in France last week that would accomplish just that.
The law bans supermarkets in France from discarding or destroying unsold food. According to Salon’s Lindsay Abrams, the law mandates that all unsold but edible food should be donated to charities for immediate distribution to the poor. Food that is unsafe to eat is to be donated to farms for agricultural purposes. Supermarkets that exceed a certain square footage are required to sign contacts with charities by July 2016; penalties for failing to do so include fines of up to roughly $81,600 or two years in prison. The legislation is one of the world’s first attempts to address the twin problems of food waste and hunger in this manner.
Caves and tunnels have always been part of human life.
Caves and tunnels have always been part of human life. We've grown more adept at shaping these underground shelters and passages over the millennia, and today we dig for hundreds of reasons. We excavate to find both literal and cultural treasures, digging mines and unearthing archaeological discoveries. We use caverns for stable storage, for entertainment, and for an effective shelter from natural and man-made disasters. And as the planet's surface becomes ever more crowded, and national borders are closed, tunnels provide pathways for our vehicles and for smugglers of every kind. Collected below are more recent subterranean scenes from around the world.
A challenge based on four words of the law amounts to little more than politics dressed up as a legal argument.
The Supreme Court is about to decide another blockbuster case arising under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The specific issue is whether federal-tax subsidies are available to people who purchase health insurance from exchanges operated by the federal government or instead whether such subsidies are available only from exchanges established by the states. A decision in favor of the plaintiffs in King v. Burwell would most likely cripple the ACA in over thirty states and deprive millions of people of health insurance.
That the Supreme Court even agreed to hear the case is the result of an improbable conjunction of events. Two committed opponents of the ACA seized upon four words of the law out of almost 1000 pages, and through their persistent and energetic work, created a powerful soundbite that appealed to die-hard opponents of the ACA. They then took that sound bite and dressed it up in highly technical arguments about statutory interpretation that might well change how healthcare is paid for in the United States. But the soundbite is inaccurate, and the technical window dressing shouldn’t obscure the fact that the argument is based on a faulty reading of the text of the entire law as well as a misleading account of how and why the law was passed. At bottom, King v. Burwell is a political challenge to the ACA dressed up in legal garb.