What's HBO Go's Problem?

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There is no word for "cord cutter" in Dothraki
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HBO

Gabriel Rossman -- 
Sociologist at UCLA.  His work applies economic sociology to media industries. He blogs at Code and Culture and is the author of Climbing the Charts.

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.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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