HBO Go without Needing Cable? Welcome to the Future of Television

HBO’s on-demand service could float free of cable’s clutches. What, beyond ‘Game of Thrones’ binges for all, will this mean?


The talk these days in cable television is all about “cord cutters”, those people who are willing to get their TV fix by watching shows on a channel’s website, downloading them from iTunes, or even waiting for them to show up on streaming services like Netflix and Hulu and then binging every episode at once.

HBO Go is the cord cutter’s holy grail. It allows HBO subscribers access to all of HBO’s movies and original programs, on demand. Now it looks like HBO Go might be available to those without cable. Welcome to the future.

At a Goldman Sachs conference on Wednesday, Time Warner chief executive Jeff Bewkes said the company has had some success with a program offering cable customers who pay for broadband internet access a cheaper cable package that includes a handful of channels and access to HBO and HBO Go. Time Warner owns both the cable network and the premium channel, so it makes it easy for it to do this, but the practice has gained in popularity in recent months among other cable providers like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T.

Bewkes also hinted that in the future, consumers who pay for high-speed internet will be able to buy subscriptions to HBO Go without having cable at all, just as many already do with Netflix and Hulu Plus.

“[It] is becoming more viable, more interesting,” Bewkes said, according to the Huffinton Post. “We’re seriously considering what is the best way to deal with online distribution.”

This is a smart move for HBO, because the future is about platforms, not cable channels. If you let me put on my sci-fi futurist hat for a moment, in the far future we will consume our “content” in an all on-demand marketplace. We won’t turn on HGTV hoping House Hunters will be on – we’ll go to one of the subscription services we pay for and watch however many episodes we want, or we’ll download them from somewhere bit by bit, like we do now with songs from the new Ariana Grande album. (If, you know, we actually listened to Ariana Grande.)

Netflix, Hulu, iTunes, YouTube, Amazon and, potentially, HBO Go are the channels of the future, the platforms that will give us access to our shows. TV channels will just be producers, creating content that is distributed via platforms available wherever and whenever the customer wants. HGTV (or MTV or even NBC) won’t place their shows into linear time slots. They’ll just have a store on iTunes.

HBO was the original platform. Since its inception, in the 70s, it has allowed people to watch movies any time they want, in their homes. Sure, back then you couldn’t choose what movie you wanted to watch and you probably had to sit through Chariots of Fire about 17 million times, but nonetheless it was the original Netflix.

Now it’s the only platform mature enough to offer something like HBO Go, which is packed entirely with its own original creations, everything from sports shows to sitcoms to soft-core pornography (hello, Cathouse). This could be the first channel of the future, a platform stuffed with things you can’t get anywhere else, available for a True Detective binge whenever you like. But that future rests on it being able to wrench itself away from being only on cable, something Bewkes hints is soon to happen.

Now, don’t get all excited that you might finally be able to watch Game of Thrones without pirating it from some shady bit-torrent site. There are still a lot of things that have to happen before you can cut the cord entirely. The biggest obstacle is the cable companies, which handle the billing for HBO and its customers and provide its major source of revenue. If HBO gave customers another reason not to have cable there would be a serious backlash from the very people it needs to survive.

But as Bewkes points out, the survival of cable companies doesn’t lie in television, but in the internet. People can cut the cord all they want, but having Netflix and no broadband is sort of like buying a bike without any pedals. HBO Go could become something that convinces people to go with a certain internet provider (much as millions are still trapped on AT&T because they wanted the first iPhone) or, as Time Warner is using it, something that will convince people to pay more for their internet service.

In order for that to happen, the cord cutters need to reach a critical mass, at which point providing a steady stream of data will be more lucrative than providing thousands of channels, most of which no-one watches. That is still very far away. A study released on Thursday said that only 2.9% of people who pay for cable plan on cutting the cord in the next year, slightly up from 2.7% last year. In the grand scheme of things, that’s next to nothing.

However, what’s really worrisome is that 49% of subscribers aged 25 to 34 say they are “very likely” to ditch cable. Much of that might be because cable can be prohibitively expensive for young people, but once a generation raised in an instant-gratification universe become of age, it is going to demand the shows it wants when it wants them, which will make cable seem more and more obsolete.

HBO Go is already wildly successful – so much so that demand often crashes it. Once that popularity can be turned into dollars – and not just people freeloading off of their mom’s co-worker’s neighbor’s plan – we’ll really be living in the future.

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