June 28, 2011, 7:49 AM — On Sunday CNET ran a piece about HBO Go, HBO's streaming media service. If you're not familiar with HBO Go, think of it as Netflix streaming that's limited to HBO's content. (It's worth pointing out that HBO doesn't license it's content for Netflix streaming, so HBO Go is the only legitimate away to stream the network's content.)
The big news was that HBO was anticipating (and should have reached by now) the 3 millionth download of the HBO Go app, which is available for iOS and a few Android devices. Given that there are 28 million HBO subscribers, and the app just launched at the start of May, this is pretty impressive uptake.
So how'd they do it, and what's the point? To answer the first question, HBO Go has two major features going for it. First, you can watch pretty much any of HBO's original content on the app (or service...you can also access HBO Go via its website). This includes older HBO series that you'd otherwise have to turn to disk to obtain. HBO On Demand doesn't offer them and the HBO channels don't re-run these old series very often (if at all).
So HBO Go offers subscribers the past, but even more surprisingly, the service offers subscribers the future, and I think this is what has really prompted people to go download the app. What do I mean? At least twice in recent weeks, HBO has released new episodes of a show on HBO Go before these episodes have aired on TV. They did it for Game of Thrones and for True Blood. In both cases, an episode of the show ended with a teaser along the lines of "Can't wait for more? Access next week's episode right now on HBO Go." You have to know plenty of fans ran for their iPads as soon as they heard this.
So what's the point for HBO? Well, (I should add that what follows is speculation on my part) the 'Go' service makes the network a lot more sticky. Let's face it, we can get the movies that HBO shows pretty much anywhere. What makes the service worth the steep $15 or $16/month is original programming and sports events. The problem is keeping subscribers around when their favorite shows end for the season. HBO Go provides (according to CNET) 1,400 pieces of content to tide you over until the new season begins.
That at least is what's happening at our house. We subscribed to HBO in order to watch Game of Thrones, with the intent was that we'd subscribe for a few months, then cancel until next Spring when season 2 rolls around. But then we started getting hooked on content we've missed via HBO Go, so we're keeping the subscription and trying to catch up with current shows that we missed the beginnings of.
What I don't understand, though, is why HBO Go is only available via mobile device and browsers. Why not offer HBO Go on Smart TVs, Roku boxes or even game consoles? Y'know, the places we find Netflix and Hulu Plus. It shouldn't be threatening to the cable companies since you need to subscribe to HBO via your cable company in order to get HBO Go in the first place. It's clearly not a rights issue since this is all HBO's content. Limiting the service to mobile devices just doesn't make sense. I'm even told the HBO app blocks output from the iPad to the TV using an HDMI out cable (whether this is deliberate or not is unclear; Airplay to Apple TV apparently works).
Maybe I'm just impatient and HBO is working on partnering with other device makers to bring the service to the big screen in the living room. I don't see any reason why they wouldn't be; it'd just make the service even more valuable and give subscribers even more reason to stick around.
Still, it's good to see a network taking a chance on offering subscribers a choice in how and when and where to watch the content they pay for. HBO Go is, in my opinion, a win for everyone involved, and something of a threat to competitors like Showtime (who doesn't offer a similar service and seems to be drawing away from their Netflix streaming licensing). Let's be honest: HBO is an expensive service, but HBO Go makes that monthly charge a lot easier to swallow.