Wednesday, April 20, 2011

HBO GO app won't free us from the cable companies

It sounded like a good idea, a separate service from HBO called HBO GO which would allow users to watch HBO programming on their tablet or mobile device. Instead of a horrible promotional app, like what is being offered now in the App Store, this would be an honest to goodness streaming service.
Unfortunately, this isn't going to be one of those breakthrough moments where a major media company unshackles itself from the television carriers and begins offering its services free from cable contracts that force you to pay for the Home Shopping Network. No, HBO GO is very much tied to the hip with the cable and satellite providers.

The new app, which will be available May 2 for iOS devices and Android, is really just an extension of the online service that will allow subscribers to watch their favorite programming on their computers. The app, in the end, looks to be superfluous. Apps for Xfinity and other cable providers already do, or what to, allow viewers to stream content for viewing on their mobile or tablet devices. So why do you need HBO GO?

Really, what HBO's service is about is differentiating their premium service from regular network broadcasters. While HBO doesn't mind you watching a movie while stuck at the airport, the networks are fighting for the right to do this themselves, free from the cable providers. Meanwhile, the cable and satellite providers are arguing that their contracts with the content providers give them the right, the exclusive right, to stream content to their subscribers.

In other words, the battle will be over whether when you sign that cable contract you are locked in to getting programming only one way, through that carrier. While the carriers and programmers fight it out, it is the consumer that is saying they want to be free: free to view programming anywhere, but also free to pick and choose that programming.

Comparing the television to other mediums, television is probably the most backwards. Content providers are constantly locked into regional and carrier agreements. For instance, try watching live BBC television in the States – instead we get BBC America, hardly the same. As for Al Jazeera English, well forget it, the cable companies have made sure they are locked out.

It is unlikely that if the often rumored Apple television display product is actually launched that it will be able to break the direct tie between programming and carriers. Apple is very much used to negotiating deals across the board in order to avoid problems. Apple is generally interested in bringing content to consumers in new ways, not through new distribution channels. (You could argue that iTunes is a new distribution channel, but it really isn't, it is a new retailer, simply replacing one seller for another. You still must go through EMI, for instance, to get music – but instead of buying the end product from Tower Records, it is though Apple.)

Between now and May 2 we will find out if the new HBO GO apps will allow viewers to watch programming on 3G – unlikely – and whether there will be an Android tablet version available – also unlikely. If I were at RIM I'd be making sure that a version was ready for their platform, as well. But that is, of course, unlikely.