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.
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.
Without the financial support that many white families can provide, minority young people have to continually make sacrifices that set them back.
He died on a Saturday.
My mother and I had planned to pick my dad up from the hospital for a trip to the park. He loved to sit and watch families stroll by as we chatted about oak trees, Kona coffee, and the mysteries of God. This time, the park would miss him.
His skin, smooth and brown like the outside of an avocado seed, glistened with sweat as he struggled to take his last breaths.
In that next year, I graduated from grad school, got a new job, and looked forward to saving for a down payment on my first home, a dream I had always had, but found lofty. I pulled up a blank spreadsheet and made a line item called “House Fund.”
Nuts-and-bolts Washington coverage has shifted to subscription-based publications, while the capitol’s traditional outlets have shrunk.
Back in 2009, I had a job with a Washington, D.C.-based newsletter called Water Policy Report. It wasn’t exactly a household name, but I was covering Congress, the federal courts, and the Environmental Protection Agency—a definite step up from the greased-pig-catching contests and crime-blotter stories I had chased at a community newspaper on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, my first job out of college.
One of my responsibilities at the newsletter was to check the Federal Register—the official portal that government agencies use to inform the public about regulatory actions. In December of that year I noticed an item that said that the Environmental Protection Agency had decided that existing pollution controls for offshore oil-drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico were adequate, and that there wasn’t enough pollution coming from those platforms to warrant further review or action.
Neuroscientist James Fallon discovered through his work that he has the brain of a psychopath, and subsequently learned a lot about the role of genes in personality and how his brain affects his life.
In 2005, James Fallon's life started to resemble the plot of a well-honed joke or big-screen thriller: A neuroscientist is working in his laboratory one day when he thinks he has stumbled upon a big mistake. He is researching Alzheimer's and using his healthy family members' brain scans as a control, while simultaneously reviewing the fMRIs of murderous psychopaths for a side project. It appears, though, that one of the killers' scans has been shuffled into the wrong batch.
The scans are anonymously labeled, so the researcher has a technician break the code to identify the individual in his family, and place his or her scan in its proper place. When he sees the results, however, Fallon immediately orders the technician to double check the code. But no mistake has been made: The brain scan that mirrors those of the psychopaths is his own.
The sport is becoming an enterprise where underprivileged young men risk their health for the financial benefit of the wealthy.
Football can be a force for good. The University of Missouri’s football team proved it earlier this month when student athletes took a facet of campus life that’s often decried—the cultural and economic dominance of college football—and turned it into a powerful leverage point in the pursuit of social justice. Football can build a sense of community for players and fans alike, and serve as a welcome escape from the pressures of ordinary life. The sport cuts across distinctions of race, class, geography, and religion in a way few other U.S. institutions do, and everyone who participates reaps the benefits.
But not everyone—particularly at the amateur level—takes on an equal share of the risk. College football in particular seems headed toward a future in which it’s consumed by people born into privilege while the sport consumes people born without it. In a 2010 piece in The Awl, Cord Jefferson wrote, “Where some see the Super Bowl, I see young black men risking their bodies, minds, and futures for the joy and wealth of old white men.” This vision sounds dystopian but is quickly becoming an undeniable reality, given new statistics about how education affects awareness about brain-injury risk, as well as the racial makeup of Division I rosters and coaching staffs. The future of college football indeed looks a lot like what Jefferson called “glorified servitude,” and even as information comes to light about the dangers and injustices of football, nothing is currently being done to steer the sport away from that path.
Places like St. Louis and New York City were once similarly prosperous. Then, 30 years ago, the United States turned its back on the policies that had been encouraging parity.
Despite all the attention focused these days on the fortunes of the “1 percent,” debates over inequality still tend to ignore one of its most politically destabilizing and economically destructive forms. This is the growing, and historically unprecedented, economic divide that has emerged in recent decades among the different regions of the United States.
Until the early 1980s, a long-running feature of American history was the gradual convergence of income across regions. The trend goes back to at least the 1840s, but grew particularly strong during the middle decades of the 20th century. This was, in part, a result of the South catching up with the North in its economic development. As late as 1940, per-capita income in Mississippi, for example, was still less than one-quarter that of Connecticut. Over the next 40 years, Mississippians saw their incomes rise much faster than did residents of Connecticut, until by 1980 the gap in income had shrunk to 58 percent.
As the public’s fear and loathing surge, the frontrunner’s durable candidacy has taken a dark turn.
MYRTLE BEACH, South Carolina—All politicians, if they are any good at their craft, know the truth about human nature.
Donald Trump is very good, and he knows it better than most.
Trump stands alone on a long platform, surrounded by a rapturous throng. Below and behind him—sitting on bleachers and standing on the floor—they fill this city’s cavernous, yellow-beige convention center by the thousands. As Trump will shortly point out, there are a lot of other Republican presidential candidates, but none of them get crowds anything like this.
Trump raises an orange-pink hand like a waiter holding a tray. “They are not coming in from Syria,” he says. “We’re sending them back!” The crowd surges, whistles, cheers. “So many bad things are happening—they have sections of Paris where the police are afraid to go,” he continues. “Look at Belgium, the whole place is closed down! We can’t let it happen here, folks.”
Why are so many kids with bright prospects killing themselves in Palo Alto?
The air shrieks, and life stops. First, from far away, comes a high whine like angry insects swarming, and then a trampling, like a herd moving through. The kids on their bikes who pass by the Caltrain crossing are eager to get home from school, but they know the drill. Brake. Wait for the train to pass. Five cars, double-decker, tearing past at 50 miles an hour. Too fast to see the faces of the Silicon Valley commuters on board, only a long silver thing with black teeth. A Caltrain coming into a station slows, invites you in. But a Caltrain at a crossing registers more like an ambulance, warning you fiercely out of its way.
The kids wait until the passing train forces a gust you can feel on your skin. The alarms ring and the red lights flash for a few seconds more, just in case. Then the gate lifts up, signaling that it’s safe to cross. All at once life revives: a rush of bikes, skateboards, helmets, backpacks, basketball shorts, boisterous conversation. “Ew, how old is that gum?” “The quiz is next week, dipshit.” On the road, a minivan makes a left a little too fast—nothing ominous, just a mom late for pickup. The air is again still, like it usually is in spring in Palo Alto. A woodpecker does its work nearby. A bee goes in search of jasmine, stinging no one.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
Why one journalist wanted to grade Finland’s schools
In Finland you’re not supposed to wonder—let alone ask out loud—if one school is better than another. That’s because all Finnish schools are designed to be equal.
We Finns are very proud of our equal education system. In fact, education is the one positive thing Finland is known for all around the world. Our results in global assessments of 15-year-olds have won us international attention a small nation rarely receives.
The strong ideology of equality doesn’t always make life easy for us Finnish education reporters. We feel, for example, we should rank the nation’s high schools even though the government doesn’t want us to.
In 2011, my boss asked me to help her create a more ambitious high-school ranking than anything Finland had ever seen. I had just been promoted from an education reporter to the editor of domestic news at the Finnish News Agency, which is like the Associated Press of Finland except on a smaller scale. (Since there are only 5 million Finns, all things Finnish are small scale.)