There has been a steady, but increasing, shift in our culture as we move away from police procedurals and emergency room dramas to a realm of high fantasy and period drama. The relative success of shows like ABC’s Once Upon a Time and HBO’s Game of Thrones, have shown that we’re tired of watching the same sterile hospital interior or the same pristine courtroom each week on our televisions. There has to be more out there that can inspire and entertain us, and thus these shows are born.
It is largely Game of Thrones I want to discuss today. The success it has seen seems to come from nowhere. I’ve talked to lifelong nerds who cannot fathom the mainstream acceptance a show which includes swords and sorcery has managed to conjure up. The land of Westeros, and the wider world of George R.R. Martin’s fantasy series, has captured the imaginations of far more folks than one might imagine. However, that success has been met with the most apparent disconnect between large cable conglomerates and consumers that has ever been seen.
A recent episode of Game of Thrones was illegally downloaded over 2.5 million times. Never before has a single series ever been pirated in such staggering numbers. I’ve seen articles flying across the front pages of all manner of digital news outlets crying out against this for fear the show will ultimately fail due to the lack of paid support from subscriptions, or rallying in support of those who are pirating it because HBO does not offer a reasonable, legal means for accessing episodes. What we’re seeing here is something new and exciting in the world of entertainment consumption, yet unfortunately neither HBO, nor the cable companies at large seem to have the least understanding of what their consumers want.
Since the inception of Netflix there has been a steady stream of folks, myself included, who are slowly cutting the cord on cable subscriptions. I’ve gone from paying around $75 a month for cable and a DVR, to roughly $18 a month for Netflix and Hulu Plus. I was tired of paying big money for a service which largely offered up no value to me personally. Many other folks are starting to feel the same. Why pay $50 a month for a cable service that offers up little to no added value in entertainment?
Over the past decade we’ve seen an increase in production values for network programs, with popular comedies and dramas pulling in millions of viewers each week. Unfortunately for the cable companies none of these shows require a cable subscription at all. In fact, with the recent switch to digital broadcast, you can receive every episode in HD without doing anything other than having an HDTV made in the last six or so years or purchasing an inexpensive converter box. Because of this, and the increase in use of services such as Hulu Plus and Netflix, consumers largely don’t need a cable company to provide them with the content they want to watch. And because both services offer backlogs of shows, the necessity for a cable company to provide a DVR has gone right out the window. Hulu Plus has given us a DVR which goes with us wherever we are: on your mobile phone, your tablet, or any laptop you log into around the world.
This brings me back to the situation that HBO is in. They have a show which is undoubtedly one of the more popular and well-produced dramas on cable television this decade and yet millions of folks are not paying them to see it. The estimated $70 million that the show will cost HBO to make this season is fueled largely by subscriptions and DVD sales, and so many fear the show’s early demise due to a sharp drop in each. HBO has a digital service in place called HBO Go, which offers access to their programming on the move, but it requires a cable subscription to access. They do not offer their programming through other digital means throughout the “live” season, and so customers who want to support this show they love are required to pay a minimum of $65 each month to have access to one program. Some like myself will choose to ignore the program altogether, missing out on the drama because there is no reasonable, legal means to access it. But as we’ve seen more and more people are willing to pirate the show to gain access to programming that has been denied them in any sort of timely or reasonably priced way.
HBO executives have implied that perhaps a stand alone product might counteract piracy, but we see that they are anchored to cable contracts which require them to distribute their product only to those who subscribe to them through said cable provider. HBO is fearful, and rightfully so, that if they defy this they will lose the support of cable companies with their nationwide distribution network. In the same way, cable companies are afraid if HBO offers their programming as a stand alone product their base cable subscriptions will appear far less valuable. What neither seems to understand is that by failing to provide customers with timely, and reasonably priced, access to premium content, both of them stand to eventually lose.
What the current climate of piracy shows us is that people are not willing to pay for a product they do not feel is of comparable worth. Not all of those who enjoy Game of Thrones are willing to make a $65 a month sacrifice to receive one program they enjoy. As they turn to piracy the chances of the show being able to retain its high production values and solid casting are going to falter. HBO can’t collect the subscriptions allowing it to continue funding the project, and therefore will have to scale back budgets or cut new programming altogether. This doesn’t merely hurt HBO’s ability to draw in customers with premium content, but ultimately affects the perceived value of a cable subscription when the premium channels that cable offers no longer provide content of increased value.
My proposed solution, which benefits both parties, is stand alone access to HBO’s Go service at an increased premium above access through a major cable provider. Where you can subscribe to all of HBO’s channels through Time Warner Cable for $15 a month, why not offer the Go service a la carte for $20 or even $25 a month? This retains cable subscriptions for folks who prefer them, as the cost to move from their current set up to a stand alone product would provide diminishing returns, especially if they enjoyed current “basic” cable content. Whereas new customers who have no interest in a bundled package would be able to access programming they would not otherwise be able to receive. Even if you only retained the stand alone subscriptions for the few months that shows like Game of Thrones air, the added revenue would help HBO continue to fund ambitious projects like this and maintain their reputation of stellar programming.
This may not be the absolute best solution. I admit that I see the faults in overpriced stand alone products. However, until such an infrastructure exists in which a creator can directly reach any potential consumer, we’re going to have to find a happy medium. I know there are people out there willing to pay for content, seemingly “forced” into piracy because they have no other acceptable way to reach it. Give them an alternative. Find a way to charge the customer for what they want so that we continue to see ambitious, powerful, and engaging creation. Cable companies being the gatekeepers of content are experiencing revolt. We have the opportunity to see this become an easier transition.
This is revolutionary. This is the future. I know you folks have opinions on this, so let’s start a discussion.