Game of Networks

Approximately five years ago, a television announcement rocked my world.  The rights to one of my favorite fantasy novels (yep, I said it) were bought by HBO.  I practically threw a parade, and I hate parades. Friends and co-workers made fun of my excitement, but they’re not laughing now.  They’re all watching it.  The show?  Game of Thrones.

So what does this have to do with social media (besides a gorgeous ad campaign?) Quite a lot, actually.  You see, like many good citizens under the age of 35 and working in the digital space, I don’t have cable.  And as a sympathetic artist, I always pay for my content.  Among Netflix, Hulu, and my subscription to NHL.com, I’m a generally happy bunny.  But last week, HBO had to go and ruin my life.

Subscribing wasn’t an option.  I assumed that in this day and age I’d at least be able to get an iTunes Season Pass.  No such luck.  After some shouted profanity, tears, and an angry tweet @HBO, I asked for friend’s opinions.  The answer across the board was, “I’d pay for it if I had the option, but I couldn’t, so I just torrented it.” I couldn’t bring myself to download the show illegally, but honestly HBO, what do you expect from us?

Currently, HBO and Showtime offer streaming, but only to subscribers.  That doesn’t help the multitude of people (like me) who have forsaken traditional cable for online options.   As these networks depend entirely on subscriptions, I understand their being protective.  But why can’t subscriptions move online as well? The way I see it, they have two options:

1)    Offer Season Passes to tv shows online.  I would happily pay $2.99 an episode or $30 for a season, and I know I’m not alone in that opinion.  They’ve offered this for a handful of shows, but the most popular are withheld out of fear of losing subscribers.  Fine.  If that’s too threatening, then:

2)    Offer an online-only subscription option.  If HBO and Showtime continue to produce top quality programs like Dexter, The Wire, and True Blood, people will subscribe online.  A tv subscription costs $10-$15 a month, and part of that goes to the cable provider.  If premium networks drop the price for an online, on-demand subscription and distribute their shows themselves, they can increase subscriptions and compete with Netflix.

If networks aren’t proactive, they will be replaced.  Last month Netflix made waves when it announced House of Cards, its first original series.  The show, directed by David Fincher and starring Kevin Spacey, had bids from multiple premium and cable networks, and you could practically hear HBO and Showtime quaking in their boots.  Distributing original content is being called a major gamble on the part of Netflix, but let’s be real here: even if House of Cards bombs, television is moving online and premium channels will become obsolete if they don’t get with the program.

The traditional television model is dated, and it’s time for network heads to stop living in denial. People are willing to pay for high quality television, and Netflix and Hulu Plus have paved the way for online subscriptions.  Premium networks will be able to scrape by for a few more years, but they will fall to online services if they don’t catch up.  There are enough ways for people to get content for free if they want it, and as more people drop their cable subscriptions, that’s what they’ll do if they’re not given other options.

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