OPINION: Will HBO go streaming-only?

AT&T is now the undisputed parent of HBO and other former Time Warner properties. It’s also the largest telecom in history, as far as I can tell, with a reach that covers everything from traditional land lines to zombie dragons. Not bad for a company that was actually broken into tiny pieces almost 40 years ago. Those pieces got picked up and are now part of a whole that’s bigger than ever.

You’ve probably read some stories in the last several weeks about AT&T’s plans for HBO. They center around comments from AT&T’s John Stankey about how HBO will become more “Netflix-like” in the future. We’re all left wondering just what that means.

Will HBO go from a rare diamond to a common pebble?

HBO practically invented prestige television with shows like The Sopranos and Sex and the City. The network started as a way for home viewers to see concerts and sporting events. (Hence the name, Home Box Office.) In the 1980s they spread out into movies, leveraging parent Warner Communication’s vast library of films. But, audiences wanted more by the mid-1990s and HBO brought it. HBO brought episodic television that was raw and deep and all the things you couldn’t get on broadcast TV. It transformed television as we knew it back then.

A generation later, Netflix tried the same thing. Starting with House of Cards and Lillyhammer, Netflix tried to make the move from streaming movies and old tv shows into original programming. Its technique, though, has been nothing like HBO’s. Where HBO creates well-crafted and unique shows a few at a time, Netflix has been shoving everything they can think of down the pipeline from sci-fi movies to documentaries to reboots of comfort-food TV.

There’s room for both strategies, but a lot of people are now saying that HBO wants to do what Netflix did and pump out so much programming that you won’t notice that most if it, frankly, is crap.

Mr. Stankey may have implied that but he didn’t say it. He did say that there will be more original programming but he sure didn’t say the quality is dropping down to the level of Netflix’s recent blockbuster Bright. I don’t think it will, either.

But why is HBO even on cable anymore?

There’s this ongoing rumor that HBO will stop being a cable service altogether and move completely to streaming. On the face of it, it might make sense. If nothing else it would make sense for them to scale back from 12 channels to maybe 2 or 3. I get that. But it’s not going to happen anytime soon and I’ll give you my opinion why.

The ink’s barely dry on the deal

I would have to guess for now that HBO’s contracts with cable companies aren’t going to change. AT&T just took over and since most carriage contracts are 3 years or more, that means there are contracts out there with all these other pay-TV companies to provide HBO to them.

If AT&T simply said that the live HBO channels were going away, there would be lawsuits and everyone who claimed the AT&T deal was anticompetitive would start shouting. Turning off the live TV channels would not only cut AT&T’s revenue but increase their headaches.

Live TV still makes money for AT&T

You personally may never actually go to the live HBO channels, but plenty of people do. People in rural areas who still can’t stream HD rely on satellite and cable. More importantly, hotels and other commercial properties rely on live TV and do not use streaming at all. Getting rid of live HBO would just cost money and not do anything else.

The future is…

Well I’m not part of those closed-door meetings at AT&T HQ so I can’t say for sure. I do think that HBO GO/HBO NOW is going to play a bigger and bigger part, but at this point I would have to forecast that the live TV packages are going to stay around for years to come. I wouldn’t expect any change there.

What I do expect, and I am surprised we don’t have yet, is a streaming-box version of MAX GO. Cinemax’s live channels have been getting some love and attention in the last few years. They’re not just old movies and soft porn anymore, so if you’ve been ignoring them it’s probably time to try them out again. The app has never been available on streaming boxes and at one point it was so outdated it would not run on the latest iOS. (That’s been fixed.) I think that Cinemax is going to be repositioned as a strong second brand and we’ll see it finally take its place beside HBO on the streaming box as well.