Starting April 12, HBO will debut its new standalone online service, dubbed HBO Now, and priced at $15 a month, according to several news accounts. That event could begin the Great Unstoppable Stampede of consumers unhooking from cable and moving, in a major way, to online content delivery.
Or maybe not. Time Warner wouldn’t be offering HBO Now if it thought the new service would seriously harm the existing franchise. It’s pretty much axiomatic that you don’t crush a successful existing business to present a “better” alternative. In other words, don’t disrupt yourself.
It seems to me that HBO is coming pretty close.
But if HBO Now is able to get on platforms ranging from Roku to Amazon to Apple TV, it will have positioned itself well as HBO Now becomes HBO Later, Too. (NEW: On Monday afternoon, Apple said it will have a three-month exclusive window to sell HBO Now, and is offering the first month free to subscribers. Separately, AppleTV also cut its price from $99 to $69.)
There’s some tricky baggage. It, not some cable operator, will be mainly responsible for delivering the content and dealing with complaints. HBO has given the job of delivering the content to MLB Advanced Media, the ball game people who have earned the reputation as super-reliable streaming facilitators. (MLB will get tested quickly; HBO Now’s Opening Day was timed to coincide with the season premiere of “Game of Thrones.”)
So what happens now?
According to January research from Parks Associates, half of the people who say they are interested in the new HBO service will drop their pay-TV subscriptions altogether, which, the research company says, could cause a 7% dip in subscribers.
Since those defecting customers would still be paying HBO -- but for the new online service -- that would be a blow for cable and satellite TV.
But because HBO would also pick up something like 15 million online subscribers who now don’t get HBO, it would be doing just fine. (Time Warner’s other cable properties, like TNT, TBS and CNN, presumably would feel the pinch, and no doubt that’s why those channels hooked up with Dish’s SlingTV new over-the-top service.)
That’s all theory.
Peter Kafka at Re/Code estimated that 7% hit on pay cable’s base, that would amount to 6.8 million lost cable/satellite subscribers.
That kind of subscriber mudslide would change the landscape quickly. But as Kafka and almost everybody else says, what customers say they will do--quit cable--often differs from what they actually do--don’t quit cable. A very long time ago, New York Times columnist Russell Baker wrote, facetiously, that before every U.S. presidential election, Canadian home builders go on a tear after reading stories about all the people who will move north if the other guy wins. After the election, nothing happens.
Remember. Television invented the couch potato.
Counting the dollars you could save snipping cable is grim work, if you have to figure in a way to account for a DVR, access to local channels and a smattering of other offerings, that calls on you to think, and that is exactly opposite of the primo television experience.
Still, I am curious about how HBO will sell HBO Now. It would seem no media outlet would be eager to take the business of advertising an OTT service whose major benefit seems to be that it is not cable. Now, even broadcasters benefit from cable systems that are fat and happy.
HBO’s best advertising venue might turn out to be commercial-free HBO itself. Also, as Business Insider.com points out, explaining what HBO Now is and how it differs from HBO Go is not exactly easy. It’s going to be interesting to watch this play out.