HBO Now’s Exclusive Arrangement With Apple Is a Groin Punch to Cord Cutters
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In the battle between cord cutters and cable companies, progress is often measured on a one step forward, one crippling fall down a flight of concrete stairs back scale. Online viewing proponents celebrated last year when HBO announced the launch of a standalone streaming service beginning in April 2015. For the first time, consumers would be able to legally access HBO programming without a cable subscription. On the human achievement scale, this product lands somewhere between air conditioning and the Fleshlight.
It was, predictably, too good to be true.
Monday, the premium cable giant released additional details about the service, including the name (HBO Now), price ($15) and accessibility. The first two are quite reasonable. That last piece, though, has sparked anger across the Internet outrage machine.
It turns out that only iOS users will have access to HBO Now next month. Apple revealed an exclusive partnership with HBO during its “Spring Forward” event, announcing that the HBO Now app will be limited to the iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch and Apple TV devices for the first 90 days. Granted, there’s a small loophole — users can watch all HBO programming at HBONow.com once they’ve subscribed to the service through their Apple device — but anyone with an Android, Windows Phone or Surface tablet, Chromecast, Roku or Amazon Fire TV is out of luck until summer…just in time to miss Game of Thrones’ entire fifth season.
Those who live outside the Apple ecosystem are understandably irate. Android dominates both the smartphone (78.9 percent) and tablet (62 percent) markets, and Google has sold over 10 million Chromecast dongles in less than two years, yet those users are shut out until July at the earliest. Same for Amazon (which already offers select HBO content via Prime) and Roku.
So why do this? For one, HBO avoids having to create a digital distribution infrastructure from scratch. Customers can simply go to the App Store, download HBO Now, and start watching. On Apple’s side, the move appears designed largely to boost declining Apple TV sales (other than connecting your PC, iPhone or iPad directly to your television via HDMI or adapter, Apple’s outdated streaming box is the only way to get HBO Now to your flatscreen). The once-popular device has fallen to third in streaming media sales behind Roku, which accounts for 29 percent of the market, and Chromecast (20 percent). By making Apple TV the only bridge between HBO and your television, Cupertino hopes to force consumers into purchasing hardware along with the content.
But even though Apple reaped rewards from similar strategies in the past (the first iPhone was an AT&T exclusive), this approach seems less likely to succeed. The iPhone was a new product that instantly revolutionized the smartphone market, and there were no alternative entry points. This is a TV channel consumers can already access through multiple avenues — a cable subscription, a friend’s HBO Go password or torrents. HBO Now’s target audience — mostly young, tech-savvy consumers who want to watch Game of Thrones and Silicon Valley without a cable package — won’t shell out for an Apple TV even at the new $69 price point. They’ll simply pirate or borrow an HBO Go login until the service is available on their preferred platform.
It’s tempting to argue that HBO left money on table by partnering with Apple. Given that Google and Amazon could have easily supplied the same infrastructure, though, it’s hard to believe Apple didn’t hand HBO a massive check or reduce the customary 30 percent fee they charge on all iTunes subscriptions to ensure temporary exclusivity. Whatever the rationale, the result is yet another important but frustratingly incremental step toward true viewing independence.
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