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.”