Why HBO’s Move To Streaming Might Hurt Cord-Cutters

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Nobody loves their cable company. We tolerate them, we begrudge them, and, most of all, we pay them. There’s really no other choice unless we beg, borrow, or steal—so many of us end up incarcerated with a vast number of channels we bankroll but never watch.

But after years of incarceration, the circumstances are ripe for a prison break. Like Andy Dusfresne tunneling away behind his poster of Rita Hayworth, streaming services have begun to chip away at cable’s entrenched model. HBO chief executive Richard Plepler’s announcement that, beginning next year, the company will launch an over-the-top streaming service—without the need for a cable subscription—marks another big chunk of the cell wall turning to dust.

Consumers increasingly demand the sort of on-demand viewing they can get through Netflix, Hulu, and other services. Even the the demise of Aereo seems only a temporary setback to a future where most TV-like content is delivered over Internet connections rather than traditional cable or satellite.

The advantage of on-demand video seems clear from a technological standpoint: Not only do you not have to tune in at a specific time, but you can pause, rewind, and fast-forward your programs. Most services even let you put down a video and come back to it later—and on a different device from a different location, if you prefer. How can traditional cable possibly compete?

To date, it’s been on content and control. If you wanted the best content, you went to cable, because there was simply no other choice. (In many places there’s also literally no other choice: I’m considered pretty lucky because I live in a city that offers two cable companies. And that’s in the most densely populated city in all of New England.)

But constraint has a way of breeding creativities. These days, Netflix is producing critically acclaimed, Emmy Award-winning shows. Amazon lets users get involved in the selection process by watching pilots and voting for them. The Internet has fundamentally changed how we all watch TV, from streaming them on our phones and tablets to live-tweeting our favorite shows.

More importantly, consumers aren’t willing to turn back the clock. Now that we’ve gotten used to streaming our television, nothing is more frustrating than those companies that have refused to—if you’ll excuse the expression—get with the program. HBO was one of the biggest offenders in that regard, with highly regarded content that was still tied—even in its digital form—to a cable subscription. Now, with even HBO willing to shake off those shackles, there’s very little left to hold back people from cutting the cord.

An HBO streaming service is just shy of the holy grail to so many cord-cutters, including me. We subsist on the kindness of friends and relatives who are willing to share their HBO Go passwords. (That way, we can get our fix of Game of Thrones, The Newsroom, and so on without a cable TV subscription.) This sharing has become a well-known phenomenon that even HBO sanctioned, but the company certainly wouldn’t mind converting freeloaders into paying customers.

Some have positioned HBO’s move as aggression toward Netflix. Yes, stingy consumers might choose only to subscribe to one service or the other, but if they want to watch both Game of Thrones and House of Cards when they come out—not to mention the vast catalog of movies that each service can boast—then there isn’t much alternative to subscribing to both. And if customers flee cable, that frees up more money for the various subscription streaming services. And, wonder of wonders, that means that consumers finally have the one thing that they’ve been desperately lacking: choice.

Streaming services are the way the digital-media trend line is going. Despite the fact that you’ve been able to buy TV shows on iTunes for almost a decade, à la carte television purchases have never really taken off. (Apple, for example, still boasts about its music downloads, but it’s been a long time since it’s crowed about either movie or TV programming sales.) Just as the convenience of all-you-can-stream music services like Spotify and Pandora have started to gain ground from the likes of iTunes and Amazon, movie- and TV-streaming services are poised to upset the traditional models in those industries.

Still, cable companies aren’t exactly foundering, and even HBO’s move won’t vanquish these corporate behemoths overnight. Most cable companies also provide Internet service, and HBO itself is owned by Time Warner, which doesn’t want to jeopardize its bottom line by angering the cable companies that it’s struck sweet, sweet revenue deals with over the past several decades.

But the fact that HBO is willing to put a stake in the ground and say that it will offer an end-run around cable is certainly significant, even if we don’t know what content will be available, what it will cost, or what hoops we’ll be able to jump through to get it.

This may not be the end of cable television, but it may very well be the beginning of the end, the tipping point in the streaming-video revolution. And in HBO we have perhaps no more fitting company to pave the way for broad, lasting change. After all, as one of the company’s longest running slogans proclaimed: “It’s not TV. It’s HBO.”