Everyone seems to be cheering yesterday’s announcement by HBO CEO Richard Plepler that, starting next year, its content will be available as a standalone over-the-top streaming service. Boom! No cable or satellite subscription needed for “Game of Thrones” anymore! And now CBS is launching its own over-the-top streaming service, with live streams from a dozen markets plus a backlog of current and “classic” content.
For a lot of TV junkies who have been itching to ditch their cable bundles, this is like Christmas morning.
Hard truth for you: That big, bad bundle that everyone loves to hate is what makes great content possible. And all you are really doing is trading one big bundle in for a bunch of “mini-bundles” and a new potential cost for data speeds. I can promise you that things won’t be easier.
The economics of the cable bundle does not, despite popular belief, mean that you’re paying for stuff that you don’t watch. Remember, for every channel you don’t watch, there is someone else not watching your favorite channels and paying for those. This means that unbundling will make what you do watch proportionally more expensive. Basically, you will end up paying the same price, but will now have less choice of content -- really. I’ve got a good gym analogy for you that might help explain that one.
And it’s the predictable financing model provided by the bundle that allows a cable channel to make big creative investments. TNT spent a lot of time syndicating “Law & Order” reruns before it was in a position to create original series like “The Closer.” There were many, many years when if you turned on FX during prime time, you’d encounter some ‘80s action movie with a lot of pyrotechnics (not that there’s anything wrong with those) rather than a new episode of “Sons of Anarchy” or “American Horror Story.”
Consider this: A few days ago, WGN America, which is far from a major cable network, announced the renewal of its surprise breakout hit “Manhattan” for a second season. WGN had barely dipped its toe into original scripted content -- it's not cheap to produce a series with high-quality actors, period costumes, and the occasional bomb going off. And a lot of people will enjoy that show “over-the-top” in second windows on Netflix, Amazon or iTunes someday.
Who should they be thanking for that? Cable-bundle economics.
And, the biggest kicker of all, as I pointed out, is that even Netflix and HBO are in effect their own mini-bundles, taking those successful economics of cable and applying them to smaller batches of content. My Netflix subscription is paying for “House of Cards,” which I’m addicted to, but I just can’t get into “Orange is the New Black.” Should I be asking Netflix to “unbundle” its programming? And this is a really fun one to consider: Much more total time is spent on Netflix watching TV shows that were funded by cable bundle economics than those excellent-but-expensive Netflix originals. Where do those shows come from when the bundle goes away? Probably each to their own little bundles, which people will have to pick to subscribe to. But I digress.
Likewise, HBO has been around since 1972. (Bet you didn’t know it was that old.) Its breakout original series, “The Sopranos, premiered in 1999. That’s 27 years of first-run movies and pay-per-view boxing -- all funded by subscription -- before the company had built up the stability and financial prowess to start funding original programming on the level of “The Sopranos” and “Boardwalk Empire.”
And keep this in mind, so-called “cord-cutters”: There are only so many mini-bundles that people will pay for. The fully “unbundled” model that so many people are cheering about right now is at odds with the industry’s ability to create the engaging, high-quality, diverse breadth of content it finally can after a half-century of cable television. (Oh, and none of it has advertising, something else that has subsidized the creation of the content we all love for so long. But that has a whole set of other problems.)
Is HBO's availability to people who can’t afford a full cable package a good thing? Of course! But is this really unbundling -- or just creating a new set of bundles that will force consumer choices and new challenges like “How much should I pay for that ultra-fast Internet service so my Netflix, Hulu, and HBO stream perfectly every time?” You know, like TV always does now.