Sunday, October 26, 2014

Did HBO and CBS Just Kill TV?

It's been a fun couple of days, watching "Game of Thrones" fans rejoice, Netflix stocks freefall (quick disclosure here that I still own a few shares), cable service providers gnash their teeth, and various technology, media, and business analysts tabulating the fallout. HBO has announced that their online HBO Go streaming service will become a standalone, no cable subscription required, content platform starting in 2015.

There were a lot of signs that this was coming. There was the skyrocketing popularity of HBO shows through online piracy, particularly "Game of Thrones." There was HBO's deal with Amazon Prime to offer a good chunk of their library titles, including "The Sopranos" and "The Wire." There were the rumblings that fellow premium stations Showtime and Starz were looking to launch their own standalone streaming services for their content. And perhaps most importantly, there was Netflix churning out new content to replace what the studios were no longer interested in providing to them, and doing a pretty good job of it. Or as Ted Sarandos put it, "The goal is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us." So logically, HBO had to make this move eventually.

After all efforts by the old guard to keep subscription streaming services and on demand binge-watching from becoming the new normal, it's become clear that the war has been lost. Netflix and Amazon Prime are here to stay with growing legions of subscribers, and the cord-cutting shows no signs of slowing down. So if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. HBO has enough content and enough clout that it can make waves with its own streaming service, though I don't think that it's going to be a real competitor to Netflix the way some are predicting. "Game of Thrones" aside, HBO is still after a more niche, elite audience, reflected by the announcement that it's going to be charging at least twice the going rate of other streaming services. The one that's really getting screwed here is Amazon, which is losing the exclusivity to all that HBO content that it licensed only a few months ago.

But as juicy as the HBO Go announcement is, the arrival of CBS All Access, which offers on demand CBS content and streams of live programming from several affiliates for $6 a month, is potentially even more of a game changer. The decades of classic shows it will offer is nothing to sneeze at. However, what's really intriguing is that it's offering live programming online, the kind of service that Aereo was trying to provide before the Supreme Court quashed it. None of the other major networks have tried this yet. Fox, NBC, and ABC owned Hulu, for instance, offers no local news or sports. The live streams would fill those last few gaps in programming, creating access to shows that cord-cutters currently do not have access to without the traditional media mechanisms. Now that it's been proven that there is demand for the streaming of live broadcasts, CBS's movie isn't all that surprising either.

Other streaming services are in the works that are sure to be following soon. Sony is hot to start one with Viacom content. DirecTV and Verizon have publicly made comments about their interest, and there are rumblings that one or more of the other major television networks might follow in CBS's footsteps. Cable and regular over-the-airwaves television aren't going to be impacted immediately, because traditional viewing audiences are slow to change entrenched habits and there are many places where the high speed internet required to use these services isn't readily available. I expect that the old media guard will be substantial players for decades to come. However, as streaming options increase, on-demand programming now has more potential than ever to match or overtake traditional television offerings.

Streaming services are quickly becoming the new television channels, and consumers are getting the ability to create their own content bundles. And that means the day that a la carte programming becomes a reality is right around the corner. I just need The Food Network and maybe SyFy to get onboard with one of these new services, and that'll cover everything I feel I miss from not having cable.

This may truly be the beginning of the end of television as we know it.

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