For cord-cutters who aim to watch the best of television without a cable box (or, in some cases, even a television), HBO has long been the big missing piece of the puzzle. HBO has its own streaming video service, HBO Go, but you can only access it if you already have a cable subscription (or if you have a friend or relative with a subscription who will share their password with you). Cord-cutters ask all the time about the possibility of HBO Go being offered independently, but it would completely undermine HBO's very lucrative business model to do so, and it hasn't happened yet, and likely won't anytime soon.
But today in a very big deal for the future of streaming TV — and for the ongoing war for streaming supremacy between Netflix and Amazon (a rare battlefield where Amazon is an underdog) — HBO and Amazon announced an agreement to, beginning May 21, make Amazon Prime the exclusive(*) streaming home of classic HBO series like "The Sopranos," "The Wire," "Deadwood" and more, as well as to offer seasons of more recent HBO series like "The Newsroom" and "Girls"(**) three years after they first aired on HBO.
(*) "Exclusive," for what it's worth, just means for any non-HBO source. So HBO Go is not affected, nor On Demand, etc. If you subscribe to HBO, you still have the same access you always did.
(**) Interestingly, nowhere in the press release (which is included at the bottom of this post) is the phrase "Game of Thrones" used. I'll try to find out if that's somehow not part of the deal, or if for some strange reason Amazon didn't think it useful to trumpet that acquisition.
This is a big deal for both outfits. For Amazon, it's a reason to encourage people to sign up for Prime and use the streaming service that comes with it, rather than treating Netflix — which has made huge inroads in recent years with both their library and original shows like "Orange Is the New Black" and "House of Cards" — as the end-all, be-all for streaming video. When "Hannibal" and "The Americans" — currently two of the very best dramas on television — were both returning to TV back in February, a lot of people asked me how they could catch up on their first seasons, and when I mentioned Amazon Prime had streaming rights, they shrugged and said they were Netflix only. When you add this enormous library of classic HBO shows, miniseries and movies — and then factor in how poor Netflix's movie library is, and also how erratic their TV content can be — there's suddenly a lot of reasons to consider either jumping ship or at least subscribe to both. Netflix has been on the verge of becoming an unbreakable monopoly in this field, and a lack of competition is never good in this kind of area. Now, Netflix can't afford to be complacent with its library.
For HBO, it alleviates some of the pressure to unbundle HBO Go from a cable subscription, while still making the subscription valuable for people who want to watch current episodes of "Girls" and "Game of Thrones" to be part of the conversation. And it takes this huge library of incredible work and puts it in front of an audience that may have otherwise missed it. Just anecdotally, I know a bunch of college media studies teachers, and they've told me that their students have never seen "The Sopranos," "The Wire," etc., because they only watch what's available with their Netflix subscription. So there was the threat of an entire generation growing up without the impression of HBO as this great provider of programming (and one they might one day want to subscribe to if they were to get cable), and from a basic tele-literacy standpoint (to borrow David Bianculli's old phrase), it means that these specific shows will live on even into the cord-cutter generation.
What does everybody else think? If you're not a Prime subscriber, does this make you more likely to become one? How have you felt about the Netflix experience of late? If you've never watched the adventures of Tony Soprano or Jimmy McNulty, is now the time to do so? (Let me answer the last one for you: yes.)
Click through for the relevant part of the press release: