On the Internet, news and entertainment famously want to be free. But in June, tens of thousands of people staged an online protest that was bizarre for its medium. They offered—begged, even—to pay an entertainment company for its content. Almost as strangely, the company told them: “No way.”
The Web site TakeMyMoneyHBO.com attracted more than 160,000 people in 48 hours, each one promising to pay HBO an average of $12 a month for its streaming app, HBO Go, which offers every episode of the channel’s original programming, plus movies, but is currently available only to cable subscribers. The cheeky site might seem insignificant, but it created a media firestorm around the question of cable TV’s future. Jeff Bewkes, the CEO of Time Warner, the media company that owns HBO, tried to dismiss the issue, saying, “The whole idea that there’s a lot of people out there that want to drop [cable] and just have a Netflix or an HBO—that’s not right.” And indeed, pay-TV services added 200,000 U.S. customers in 2011; HBO and Cinemax subscriptions grew by 7 million globally in the first half of this year.
The cable bundle is under increasing popular assault these days, at least as measured by Web diatribes and water-cooler complaints. Nobody likes to feel forced to buy more than they want, and cable television sticks us with eye-popping bills for hundreds of channels that we couldn’t possibly watch even if we wanted to. The argument behind TakeMyMoneyHBO.com and its ilk is that this massive bundle could be easily unraveled and sold à la carte, by channel or even by individual show, if we just broke free of cable’s monopoly. Alas, it isn’t so simple.