Sunday, April 12, 2015

Diary Of A Cord Cutter In 2015 (Part 6: HBO Goes Over-The-Top)

HBO’s “Game of Thrones” is the world’s most pirated show, according to new data from anti-piracy solutions provider Irdeto out today. So it’s not surprising that the network has now moved to make watching its content more easily accessible to those who don’t want to pay for cable or satellite television. Instead, thanks to deals with Apple, Cablevision, Sling TV, and likely others in the future, HBO is finally a (legal) option for cord cutters.
Note: This is part 6 of an ongoing series of articles about cord-cutting in 2015. You can read Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4 and Part 5 here. 
In 2015, I finally cut the cord with cable TV, dropping down from a combination TV, phone and Internet package with Verizon to one which only includes broadband. As a result, my monthly bill has dropped as well. I currently pay for Netflix ($7.99/mo for me; new subscribers pay $8.99/mo), Hulu Plus ($7.99/mo), and Amazon Prime Instant Video – and, let’s be honest, I’d pay for Amazon Prime ($99/year) anyway, so the streaming titles are just an added benefit.

HBO Goes Over-The-Top

But this month, I’ve had a bigger decision to make: do I want to add a new service into this mix? At $15/month HBO is nearly double the price of its competitors. For those cutting the cord for financial reasons, it’s an option that will likely be carefully considered. After all, “Games of Thrones” is a great show, but eventually you could just buy the season on iTunes or Amazon or get the Blu-ray, right?
Oh, who am I kidding? I’m a cord cutter. I haven’t even hooked up my DVD player since I moved in to my new home…in December. And I don’t want to wait. HBO over-the-top it is.
The popularity of HBO’s shows is remarkable, and in part why HBO can charge a premium for its content. But it’s “Games of Thrones” that’s truly driving much of the demand for the new standalone service for cord cutters, HBO NOW.
To give you some perspective on the momentum behind this program alone: episodes from the first four seasons of “Game of Thrones” were pirated more than 7 million times from February 5 through April 6, 2015, Irdeto says. And those illegal downloads were up more than 45% year-over-year ahead of the Season 5 premiere taking place this weekend.
Meanwhile, the forthcoming season along with news of HBO NOW’s debut has been increasing demand for HBO’s service as a whole, according to Amobee Brand Intelligence. HBO consumption has been up by 85% since Apple’s announcement, and accounted for 19% of all HBO-related consumption, as well as 34% of HBO NOW-related consumption since March 9, it said.
According to HBO Chairman and Richard Plepler, speaking with Charlie Rose in an interview airing this weekend, the network’s decision to offer an over-the-top option had a lot to do with the changing nature of the TV audience, and the TV consumption behaviors of younger viewers.
“There are 10 million homes in the United States that only have broadband subscriptions and previously, before the introduction of HBO Now this Tuesday, those people were not able to get HBO,” he said. “You know, there are a lot of millennials in the country who are not subscribing to cable, satellite, or telecom services and we want to go after those young people. We think this is, as we’ve said, a millennial missile, an opportunity to attract them to our service and then get them into the house and we hope include them for many years to come.”
But while Apple apparently was first out of the gate with access to HBO NOW, its “exclusive” deal turned out to have some fine print that wasn’t initially disclosed. That is, Apple device owners aren’t the only ones who can get HBO content legally without a cable or satellite TV subscription, as it turns out. Two other companies have since announced similar deals.
Which option is right for you? Below are details of the three options currently available:

1. HBO NOW for Apple TV, iPhone And iPad Owners

As of April 7, the HBO NOW app became available to Apple TV and iOS device owners, providing access to HBO’s entire streaming content library and new shows live as they air for $14.99 per month, with one month free for those who sign up in April.
To be clear, this a second, standalone app. The HBO GO app that was previously available in the App Store and on Google Play remains the way for cable TV subscribers to authenticate using their pay TV account credentials in order to watch HBO from their mobile at any time.
hbo-now-app
With access to HBO NOW through Apple, customers can watch HBO content via their Apple TV or iOS device, as well as through supported browsers on desktop and laptop computers.
Apple’s announcement was confusing, because it was initially pitched as the “exclusive” way to access HBO NOW. But in reality, it’s becoming one of several ways to watch HBO content without a cable TV subscription. Apple is technically the “exclusive” device maker (at present) offering HBO NOW access, while Cablevision is the first pay-TV provider to do the same. But for Cablevision customers, that distinction may be splitting hairs.

2. HBO NOW for Cablevision Subscribers

The Cablevision deal announced in March, is much like the Apple option. Instead of having to buy HBO through a cable TV package, Cablevision is selling the service to its Optimum Internet service (broadband) subscribers. This service is available in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
But beyond who’s selling the service, there isn’t much difference between Cablevision’s offer and Apple’s.
Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 12.41.01 PM

Cablevision customers also pay $14.99 per month and have the free trial option. And they can also stream the content to their Apple TV, iPhone, iPad or via the web. This service option makes sense for those who are already Cablevision broadband users (and cord cutters), or those cord cutters looking to sign up for broadband in that area. It may be easier to just add it on through Cablevision’s website itself. It also makes sense for those without an Apple device, but who want to stream over the web. Or, as the HBO NOW FAQ hints, to “additional devices soon.”

3. HBO with Sling TV

Dish Network’s Sling TV is the third option for over-the-top HBO, but to be clear, it’s not offering HBO NOW. Rather, the streaming service provider is offering HBO content for a flat $15 per month, which includes three stream of HBO, and HBO’s Video-on-Demand library.
Sling TV, in case you’re unfamiliar, is a streaming service that’s positioning itself as an alternative to pay TV for cord cutters. In reality, what it’s doing is offering à la carte programming options – basically breaking up big cable package into smaller pieces – and then delivering them online and through apps on connected devices. The benefit is that you can watch a number of traditional TV networks, including ESPN, A&E, AMC, TNT, History, TBS, HGTV, Food Network, Travel Channel, IFC, Disney, CNN and more, without having to pay for cable.
hbo-sling
Instead, you start with the $20 “Best of Live TV” core package with Sling TV, then you add on other, optional packages like “Kids Extra” or “Sports Extra” for an additional $5 per month each. HBO will be one of these new extra packages, but priced at $15 per month instead.
The downside to accessing HBO through Sling TV is 1) that you can’t just buy HBO if that’s all you’re after – you have to buy Sling TV’s core package as well, then add HBO to it. And 2) Sling TV has been having some growing pains.
The service is still relatively new, and it buckled under the load of those tuning in to watch the Final Four games of the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament on Turner’s networks. Some viewers saw error messages and ended up missing out on the games. Sling TV has since apologized, explaining that it received “an extremely high volume of concurrent streams,” at the same time as it saw a “high number of new customer signups just as the first game was beginning.”
The company says it has made several adjustments to improve its service and better balance traffic surges like this in the future.  As”Game of Thrones” premieres this weekend, Sling TV will have a chance to prove whether or not those changes have actually addressed the issue.
I could also add a third concern about Sling TV – to some extent, you’re jumping out of the pan and into the fire with this service. Instead of changing your relationship with TV entirely, you’re basically paying for the same ol’ cable networks delivered through a new medium and to more platforms.
In my personal cord cutting experience, I’ve found I rely less on live TV (delivered for free over-the-air and accessed with an antenna) or even “current” TV, and spend more time binge-watching my way through programs that have already wrapped or have several seasons under their belt, as well as those that are exclusive to the “new networks” of Netflix and Amazon – like award winners “Orange is the New Black” and “Transparent,” for example. These shows are often dropped as entire seasons at once, which is how many today prefer to watch.

Pirate or Pay?

At the end of the day, cord cutters will have to decide for themselves if HBO’s content is worth the somewhat hefty price tag of $180 per year.
For the time being, HBO hasn’t yet cracked down on account sharing – a practice it basically endorsed – so users who have been logging in with a friend or family member’s account aren’t being locked out yet. But that is likely to change in time.
HBO got its audience hooked. Now it’s rolled out a convenient way to pay for its streams without cable. The final step will be terminating the practice of account sharing for good. When that gray area of legality is closed off, HBO fans will then have to determine if they want to pirate or pay. You may as well start thinking about where you stand, because that day will come soon.
Email me your cord-cutting story, or your Netflix/HBO recommendations: sarahp@techcrunch.com

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