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October 22, 2014

TV 101: Wouldn't it be nice if HBO grew a pair?

by Jay Black, posted Feb 24th 2010 11:01AM
Last week, HBO launched a new service called "HBO Go". If you subscribe to the network through your cable system, you can now access a deep offering of its content - about 600 hours so far - on your computer.

As soon as the average hotel wireless speed improves from "AOL 1997" to something more akin to what I have at home, HBO Go is going to make my life on the road much less boring. Goodbye drinking myself to sleep at the Des Moines Holiday Inn! Hello 'Entourage'! (And , uh, drinking myself to sleep).

Happy as I am about the new service, ever since it was announced something has really been pissing me off: The way HBO Go is currently configured helps the cable companies screw over their customers.


We all know we're getting screwed by our cable company, but I don't think most Americans know just how deep the screwing goes. Among the many offenses that cable companies foist on us, the worst is their insistence that you pay for your TV, internet, and phone separately. Sure, they'll "package" the three of them together into something usually called a "Triple Play", but that name's a lie; the only part of the package a customer should actually have to buy is the internet. The cable companies charging what they do for the other two services is plain, puppy-killing evil.

The "Triple Play Package" might as well be a term for something bad that happens on your first day in prison.

The whole idea of the "Triple Play" is predicated on a lie. The cable company wants you to think that you're buying three separate services: phone, TV, and internet access. This makes sense to most people because up until a few years ago your phone, TV, and internet were delivered to you in different ways, through different infrastructures. Your calls came through one set of wires, your cable TV via another, and your internet was delivered by the magical boopy noises your modem made.

The shift to digital changed all that. Now there's one set of wires coming into your house, doing just one thing: delivering strings of ones and zeroes. Your digital phone uses these bits to transmit sound, your digital TV uses the SAME bits to deliver TV, and your computer uses the SAME bits to deliver you hardcore balloon-stomping porn.

The cable company is literally selling you the same service three times and pretending it's giving you a deal. This is like your water service charging you three separate rates for your drinking water, your shower water, and your toilet water.

The tech-savvy among us already have this information tucked away in their ScotteVest. The cable companies are scared right down to their baby-liver-eating hearts that the rest of the world will figure it out.

So, how does HBO Go help perpetuate the lie? By continuing to pretend that the bits are different.

The only way you can get HBO Go is if you subscribe to HBO via a cable provider. You can't do what a lot of sensible people would like to do, which is tell the cable companies to suck it, turn off the TV part of their package, and just subscribe digitally to HBO Go. By doing this, HBO is implying that the media consumed on your TV is the "actual" media and what you watch on the computer is just an value-added extra.

HBO Go isn't alone in doing this. Hulu recently made a false distinction between bits on TV versus bits on the computer in their legal battle with Boxee. If you haven't heard of Boxee, it's neat little set-top device that will soon allow you to stream internet content directly to your TV. Hulu, the company that's owned in part by NBC and FOX, gave consumers a big middle finger when they decided to forbid Boxee access to its content. If you want to watch Hulu on your Boxee (or any other similar device), you have to use hacks and workarounds.

So, okay, try to keep this straight: NBC and FOX make TV shows. After those TV shows air, they put them on Hulu so that viewers can go online and watch them on their computer. However, if someone wants to take those TV shows (which are now on the computer) and watch them on their ACTUAL TV, he or she is technically committing a crime.

It's '1984' by dumbasses.

Take the part of your brain trained to argue politics at parties and rewire it with this thought: there is no difference at all between content on your television and content on your computer. The cable companies are strong-arming NBC, FOX, and HBO into falsifying the difference so they can sell you the same thing twice.

If the cable companies were a movie character, they'd be that big ball of oily evil in 'The Fifth Element.'

At least NBC and FOX have a vested interested in keeping the cable companies' lie. They don't make money off subscriptions and have yet to find a way to properly monetize Hulu. All of their money comes through advertising and licensing fees from the cable companies themselves. It makes sense for them to want to help keep the status quo for at least a little while longer (even if it does hurt consumers).

But HBO doesn't have any excuse. It's got a proven subscription model: for X dollars a month, you get unlimited access to premium content (and 'Bored to Death'). Even more, there are plenty of people ready to buy a digital only stream - HBO would increase its subscriber base if it would put HBO Go for sale to anyone with an internet connection, rather than limiting it to cable subscribers.

So, while I applaud HBO for creating a slick content distribution site in HBO Go -- and it really is beautiful, with fast load times and an extraordinary breadth of content -- I'd like to punch them repeatedly in the face for abetting the cable companies' high crimes against humanity.

C'mon HBO, you're better than that! You have an opportunity here to be a real pioneer. Open up HBO Go to anyone who wants to pay for it. Put it on Boxee. Put it on XBOX Live. Let the people bypass the dead-eyed aboleths at their local cable company.

You say "It's not TV. It's HBO." Prove it.

(Jay Black is a comedian and writer who really hopes you like this column. You can follow him on twitter at www.twitter.com/jayblackcomedy)

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