The Value of Exclusivity

28 Oct

HBO is known for it’s dedication to original television programs, theatrically released movies, and it’s un-severable tie to cable pay television. If you want to watch an HBO show within a year of it’s release, you have one (legal) option. You have to first be a paying cable customer and then subscribe to HBO for an additional $20/month. There is no way to stream the shows without an HBO/cable subscription and you cannot purchase digital or DVD copies of their shows until a year after they aired. As the Internet has become an integral part of the television market through streaming shows, access to additional content, and discussion boards, HBO’s exclusive marketing strategy has been under a lot of scrutiny recently.

Yet because of the nature of HBO, its marketing has to be unlike any other television channel or show. For example, because of the similarities between HBO marketing and live theater marketing, HBO recently hired a new marketing director with experience in the theater industry. Rather than selling an individual show, HBO sells an exclusive community. As former HBO chairman and CEO Chris Albrecht put it, “The product that we sell is HBO the network. You can’t buy a piece of it. You have to buy it all.”

Although HBO has a streaming counterpart, HBO Go, you have to be a full subscriber to the cable channel to get access. Because of the inconvenience and price of an HBO subscription, many people have turned to downloading episodes illegally in an attempt to weasel their way into the HBO community. The second season of Game of Thrones is on its way to being crowned the most pirated series of 2012 with about 3.9 million torrents per episode. It is not surprising to hear that there was roughly the same number of people tuning in to watch the show on HBO each week (only 4.2 million per episode). Although it may seem like a poor marketing choice to ignore the increase in popularity of the Internet as a mode of watching television, HBO may be making a smart choice. As Christopher Anderson discusses in his essay “Producing an Aristocracy of Culture in American Television,” HBO can be considered the closest that television comes to being considered art. And “the ability to think of one television series as a work of art exists alongside a belief that others are nothing more than noisy diversions.” By tying itself to cable television, HBO is ensuring that its shows are being compared to network channels that are flooded with reality shows, soap operas, and other series that lack in narrative quality. Yet, if it were to offer an option for streaming in the absence of cable television, HBO would be opening to the door for comparison to other streaming machines such as Netflix and Hulu where movies and TV series from a variety of production companies are available. So rather than being compared to the programming of network television channels, it would be compared to an aggregate of Hollywood and worldwide production companies, a much more daunting feat.

Rather than trying to sell individual series, HBO is trying to maintain an entire ecosystem that exists in the world of television rather than the Internet. While they may gain a small number of viewers through Internet subscriptions, the network would lose a lot of its control over the way in which their shows are viewed and the exclusivity of the product. As HBO co-president Eric Kessler said in an interview, “Our content is exclusive. It’s the only place you can get it. And we believe there is a value in exclusivity.”

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3 Responses to “The Value of Exclusivity”

  1. Kirsten Madsen October 28, 2012 at 9:08 pm #

    I remember hearing a lot of friends say, “If they would just sell DVDs/stream on demand/let me buy episodes, I wouldn’t have to illegally stream Game of Thrones”. Pre-cable television was inclusive–anybody with a TV could tune in to a network and be prepared for water-cooler banter the next day. Even cable shows have kept up with this desire by posting their videos to stream on their websites or on Hulu very soon after they air. The attempted exclusivity of Game of Thrones, the network’s try at keeping their art in its intended medium, was doomed to fail. This is the internet age, people. Wherever there’s a paywall, there’s a loophole. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

    It interesting to consider another form of this media exclusivity: bootleg movies. While studios would have you believe that you have to enter the magical world of cinema in order to see a newly released movie, to be enveloped by darkness and the smell of popcorn. But ever since camcorders…no way. You can get a shaky recording of whatever movie you want, either online or on the street. What is exclusive here is not the art itself. The technical and textual content of the movie is the same. What differs is the paywall. The ritual. In making TV-viewing or movie-viewing into an exclusive experience, studios and cable channels are attempting to artificially produce a feeling of artistic superiority. In reality, they are playing on the desire to belong to an upper class. You are artistically superior not because you have consumed art, but because you can afford it.

  2. hleskosky November 1, 2012 at 10:22 am #

    I completely agree with Kirsten on this–the ability to afford the luxuries of going to the movies or watching premium cable channels on TV is what’s being a key selling point, I think. Especially when HBO first came about, it was all about who had the means to afford it, they were marketing themselves as exclusive and a subscriber would be proud and show off. Now I think that applies (even more so) to shady websites on which one can find any episode of any show. I know people who pride themselves on knowing all the possible ways or sites to find a show they want to watch, and think that those who just use Netflix or Hulu are precious (in the way that it’s seen as “precious” when an adult still googles “yahoo” to get to their yahoo email account or something). Does this mean the new “elite” TV watchers are those that can weasel their way around paying for cable?–they’re the superior watchers because they beat the system and can not only watch whatever they want, but whenever they want as well. Are these people now going to be seen as smarter, where they were once were viewed as stupid for being so risky and taking shortcuts?
    Hopefully this artistic superiority isn’t completely lost, because there is still a difference between watching a movie on your computer and going to see it in a theater…or even randomly watching a television channel–a luxury I took for granted after living with no TV and having to decide what I want to watch, then find it, then let it load, then watch it. I sometimes miss the days of just channel surfing until I run across something interesting. Sometimes I even miss commercials, because though they get tiring–it also gets tiring to get pop-ups for “Sexy Russian Girls” or “Claim your prize!” when using certain methods of finding an episode of something.

  3. elisabethsanders November 1, 2012 at 11:02 am #

    I think it’s also interesting to consider what the value of exclusivity might be when nearly half of your viewers are getting your content from illegal sources. HBO obviously prides itself on high production values, but if a lot of people are streaming or tormenting their content in a much lower quality, a lot of that value is lost. If 50% of your viewers are experiencing your show as something pixelated and laggy and coming from some sketchy website, doesn’t that poor viewing experience in some sense reflect back on their understanding of HBO as an experience/brand? So to what extent is HBO’s attempt at maintaining prestige via exclusivity actually successful?

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