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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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Amen!! It's about time someone challenges the over priced cable companies. Comcast especially. We are all tired of paying for a ridiculous amount of chanels we do not use. I live in an area where I can not recieve normal free transmitted chanels even with an atenna. I live in a community of 60,000 and can't get a flippin signal for what is aired for free, ABC, CBS, NBC. That is all I care to have other than HBO & maybe MSN. The cable company would only offer me HBO on demand if I was buying their 3rd level of service which put me at a whopping $80-$90 dollars per month even though HBO was offered at an additional $10 with basic cable. I bagged all of it & rewarded their poor service offering by going to Netflix for some streaming & movie watching for $20. I even complained to the agency that governs all this when I got sick of listening to the BS from Comcast that it was not their fault that I could not get my HBO on demand unless I paid for more BS chanels & several tiers up in price. I was told this nonsense twice, once by phone at their corporate customer service location & in the local office. Seriously, you are right!!! HBO would get flooded with new clients if they would let anyone subscribe. I can see where they mar loose cable company backing however they are already loosing subscribers now that are just sick of cable, dish network etc! I have none of the above. Maybe HBO should hook up with netflix after all the histeria with a little price increase. Please people! It made a whopping differnce of $5 in my already low bill.

October 08 2011 at 2:43 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Thanks Charles

February 25 2010 at 11:39 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Guess Who

My concern is the death of "Fair Use". The idea that cable I pay for is encrypted to make recording difficult, impossible or a crime is irritating as hell. I hate that the cable networks (especially Starz) - use a network bug and endless snipes to advertise and brand like "free" TV.

The more draconian and annoying the networks and studios become - the more torrents will thrive. While they lock down content, "brand" everything, run more and larger snipes all while lowering bit rates - the more people will ask why they are paying top dollar for this privilege.

February 24 2010 at 11:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Charles: Yes. The only thing that shouldn't be allowed is plaigarism/false attribution. If you write a book I should be able to print it, sell it, make a movie out of it, whatever I want. But I shouldn't be able to say that I wrote it.

Copyright does not promote creativity. It's been proven time and time again. The quality of art would actually improve without copyright. Patents only promote innovation on a very small scale with respect to things which require extremely high R&D costs. As I said, I think patents should be allowed in very limited situations. But only a limited number of patents should be given out each year, and only to the truly innovative inventions. Combining a cellphone and a waffle iron is not patent-worthy. 10 patents a year is too many. Name 10 great inventions from 2009. Patent abuse has become an industry in and of itself and it needs to be ended. It's been conclusively shown that the current patent landscape hinders innovation far more than it fosters it. You can't tinker in your garage without violating 1000 patents these days. It's ludicrous. Patents and copyright are antiquated and should be done away with. Especially copyright.

I know this will never happen, copyright has been around too long and it just makes visceral sense to too many people. Your reaction is typical. It's wrong, but typical. The equating of copying to stealing is fundamentally improper, but you've heard it your whole life so you don't think twice about it. Theft is depriving someone else of their property. Copying a U2 CD is NOT the same as stealing a U2 CD from the store. The music industry will say it is, but it's not. At the most copying a CD is depriving the owner(s) of a potential sale. A potential sale is not property, it's not a vested interest, and nobody has a right to it.

But since "copying is stealing" is simple for the dumb masses to understand and has been drilled into our heads since the day we were born, and since the distinction requires a minimum degree of thought, I don't expect copyright to go anywhere. So, I think the best middle ground is to simply say copyright doesn't apply to personal, non-commercial use. So I can copy your book/movie/song/whatever, but I can't sell it.

February 24 2010 at 9:27 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to bruce's comment
charles melrose III

Took you a while but you ended up in the right place--for all practical purposes copyright law controls only the commercial exploitation of IP, not any non-commercial garage tinkering or music copying. But you're a lawyer who already knows that and knew it before you started your rant. Nevertheless, your hyperbole is often very entertaining, so don't back down.

February 25 2010 at 3:24 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

As long as the stupidity known as "copyright" exists, this type of stupidity is a guaranteed consequence. we need to get rid of copyright. If a "bit is a bit" then why should I be allowed to copy one bit but not another bit? Why should I ever not be allowed to copy a particular bit in my possession? Copyright is asinine. Patents for extremely new, unique, inventions and for a very limited time are okay - but only a few dozen inventions each year are truly patent-worthy. Trademark is fine, as it prevents fraud.

But copyright has to go. The notion that nobody will create anything unless they get a copyright monopoly on it is ludicrous. The people creating things solely to make a profit are always the ones creating the worst stuff anyway.

February 24 2010 at 6:26 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to bruce's comment
charles melrose III

So copyrights are stupid? Let me make sure I have this straight: If I write a book, it's OK with you if someone else reprints my text, sells it, keeps the money and I get nothing. If I produce a TV show, anybody else can record it on a DVR, rebroadcast it, sell advertising, keep the cash and I get nothing. OK with you? If I write a song, anyone else can record it, sell it and stiff me? Why don't you just give them my credit card and bank account numbers and avoid the trouble of photocopying my book or recording my show or music? Brilliant. Great insight. Copyright and patent protection promotes creativity and innovation. Without it you wouldn't have a laptop on which to write your drivel. Go to school. Read some history of arts and technology. Grab a clue.

February 24 2010 at 8:56 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

My gripe with it is that I pay for HBO. Granted I have Directv but I still pay for HBO every month. Why can't I sign up? What is this crap about it only being for Comcast and Verizon FIOS.

February 24 2010 at 3:54 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Two things: First, your internet service isn't delivered by the "same bits" as your television signal, even though both come down the same wire. That wire transmits many digital streams on different frequencies, each of which need to be independently demodulated before you get anything resembling bits, and your IP connection is structured in an entirely different way from digital cable television (QAM) streams. Pieces of equipment that deal with the IP stream are completely ignorant of the QAM data on the same wire, and vice versa.

Secondly, you're confusing the functions of access providers and content providers. When you buy internet service from a telecom, they are providing you access to its routers which connect to the internet backbone, and nothing more. When you buy cable television from them, however, they also act as content providers, or at least licensed content distributors, who act under contract with cable stations to sell their programming to their customers. This is an entirely different service, with an entirely different business model, and it's subject to the telecoms' agreements with cable stations including HBO. It's HBO that sets the terms for its content distribution, not the telecoms, who only implement HBO's decisions in this area. The telecoms aren't pulling the strings here, cable companies are free to distribute their content in any way they see fit, including over the internet, and ISP's that honor net neutrality would have to deliver it. It's cable companies and their corporate owners that perpetuate the standard cable TV distribution model, the telecoms just benefit from it as best they can.

February 24 2010 at 2:17 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

HBO, until recently, was owned by acompany that also owns cable systems. The same company which, until recently, owned TV Squad. I'm talking about Time Warner.

TV is a legacy business, with millions in ad and subscription revenue available. Not until the non-net savvy are no longer a viable market will we see premium television content available online without the TV Everywhere paywall.

The best hope is studios that are not in bed with broadcast or cable TV putting worthy stuff out there, but as long as cable can get away with this (probably another 10-20 years) the web will be a farm system for the "majors" known as TV.

February 24 2010 at 1:51 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Just the Facts

Thanks for the ScotteVest link. I'm ordering.

February 24 2010 at 1:31 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The worst thing about HBO Go is that it doesn't work in Canada. I subscribe to HBO, but for someone reason I can't watch it on their site. Ya, makes tonnes of sense. It actually makes less sense then Hulu because the shows on Hulu are going through other channels like CTV or Global up here, HBO is HBO.

February 24 2010 at 1:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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