HBO's upcoming launch of its "HBO Now" OTT service is unquestionably one of the biggest variables for the future of the pay-TV ecosystem. Because of its marquee original content and ubiquitous brand, HBO is unique among all entertainment-oriented cable networks in having the power to attract millions of OTT subscribers.
While that's an opportunity for HBO, it's also a massive threat to the larger pay-TV industry. The ability to subscribe to HBO standalone will almost certainly make cord-cutting and cord-nevering a more appealing option for some viewers. HBO Now, coupled with other OTT options, like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, or even Sling TV (for ESPN fans in particular) would be very enticing.
But as I explained in my first reactions to HBO's OTT plans last October, incenting cord-cutting or cord-nevering is the last thing HBO wants to do. Not only would it attract the ire of its all-important pay-TV distributors, it would also be a huge negative for sister company Turner Broadcasting System, which is heavily dependent on those same pay-TV distributors for monthly affiliate fees.
For now, it's unclear what content HBO Now will include or with what kind of access (e.g. full linear, immediate VOD release, back catalog availability, etc.). Clearly, the more robust the content, the more appealing HBO Now will be. But the other big driver of HBO Now's appeal is price, which is said to be $15 per month. HBO's "Goldilocks" challenge is to price HBO Now not too high, but also not too low. In other words "just right" - to gain material subscribers/revenue, while not upsetting pay-TV operators.
On the one hand, existing OTT services like Netflix and Hulu have established viewers' expectations that a high-quality service should cost less than $10 per month. But even with recent HBO price reductions by a number of large pay-TV operators, the reality is that most HBO subscribers today pay $15-20 per month for the service. So if HBO Now's price is inside of, or less than, this range, not only would it drive some existing HBO subscribers to HBO Now, it could also incent some to go cordless altogether.
Making HBO's situation with pay-TV operators more tenuous is the fact that operators earn smaller margins on HBO and other premium TV networks than their own highly-profitable services like broadband, DVR and VOD.
HBO has talked about somehow having operators participate in HBO Now, as part of a bundle with their broadband service. But if last week's report is to be believed - that HBO is seeking Apple as a launch partner - it's a pretty good indication that operators haven't been enticed by HBO's plan.
HBO Now will take both HBO and the entire pay-TV industry into completely uncharted territory. Despite all the hype around other OTT services, HBO Now is the one to watch in my opinion. If HBO is aggressive with HBO Now it could upset the pay-TV industry's tentative equilibrium. Conversely, if HBO Now has limited content and is priced high, it will get little pickup. It's a very tricky decision for HBO.
(Update: HBO has announced HBO Now will launch in April with FULL library, exclusive on Apple devices and for $14.99 per month. No pay-TV operator partnerships at least for now. A bold move by HBO.)