The Last Great TV Show

Game of Thrones will soon end. And with it, the last great TV show. What then for HBO?

What I mean by last great TV show is that, it will be the last great TV show born for TV and distributed with TV assumptions. Traditional TV is the past, streaming is the present and future. More specifically, direct streaming is the future. By direct streaming I mean that, the customer pays the streaming service provider directly. Basically, Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. While HBO may have direct customer relationships in the US, going by HBO’s status in South Africa, they have no such relationships with the majority of international customers. Coming from South Africa, the only way to watch HBO shows is through local or satellite TV. (Local usually only airs old shows)

In my home country of South Africa, there are only 2 ways to watch Game of Thrones (to my knowledge):

  • DStv – the satellite TV provider (kind of like cable).
  • Showmax – a streaming service bankrolled by Naspers. (The same company behind DStv – and of Tencent fame).

You either need satellite (similar to cable) or, you have to wait until the very end of the season until the latest Game of Thrones season is available for streaming or the old series show on local television. Other than that, there are the copies that fell off the back of the truck.

The choice this situation presents to the market is that:

  • DStv gives you access to the latest and greatest as soon as it is available internationally.
  • Showmax gives you access to the back catalog as well as back catalogs of local content which will likely never be found on HBO, Netflix or Amazon.

The problem with this is that, while great for Naspers (the company behind both DStv and Showmax), for cord-cutters, there are no options to (legally) watch Game of Thrones as it happens.

For now, this is fine with HBO as they earn their money from the TV gatekeepers worldwide, who fork out a very large amount of money for the privilege. Naspers probably does not care that much about the cord-cutters, since they are aiming to get their existing customers to purchase both DStv and Showmax. The one’s who don’t, will likely go the Showmax route.

What options are there then for cord-cutters to go direct with their money to HBO?

Especially, since like Showmax are doing locally, and I am sure other networks worldwide will attempt to do is to lock-up all the quality content that Netflix/Amazon cannot get in order to differentiate themselves.

HBO Now is available in only 9 countries (at time of writing). South Africa is not one of them. The other option is HBO Go, which requires a cable subscription (similar to the DStv/Showmax proposition). Where do streamers outside of those 9 countries go?

In my own case:

  • I cannot go direct to HBO.
  • I cannot watch the latest season (when it airs) on Showmax.
  • I do not have a DStv subscription (since I am currently living between countries – however, due to a fortunate circumstance, the place we were staying in did have a DStv decoder so we were able to watch Game of Thrones on TV.)

Now that Amazon Prime Video is available in South Africa, the most promising option seems to be Amazon Channels. Amazon Channels offers various “channels” for a fee. As such, you pay for your monthly Amazon Prime Video fee as well as the relevant fee for the channel you want to watch. In essence, you pay a subscription + the subscription for the channel. Unfortunately, the channels service is only available in the US.

Game of Thrones is likely HBOs most famous, most watched show of all time. It is also one of the most pirated shows in history. Netflix have resoundingly shown that their offering is effectively killing piracy and torrents. So why does HBO, in 2017, not offer a viable direct option to stream shows for the majority of the world?

One to start to build up direct customer relationships and two, to combat the rampant piracy.

My two cents is that HBO’s existing flock of shows reel in money from traditional networks. This means that HBO are in no hurry to go direct. We are seeing peak HBO. It seems however, that they are clinging to a dying business model and they have no Netflix-competitive service in place currently. It seems to me that even though they may want to go direct to customers around the world, they cannot go direct because they are caught up in a broadcasting rights web in many other markets – as illustrated by the scenario above.

HBO Now is available in 9 countries. (For comparison, Amazon Prime Video is now in over 200 countries and Netflix is in 190). HBO will no doubt increase the number of countries over time, but the reality is that, Game of Thrones ends in (possibly) 2 seasons time. I would sign up to an HBO direct service in the blink of an eye for Game of Thrones alone. To put that in perspective, despite all the content Showmax has, I will not sign up for their service because, while they may have all the seasons of Game of Thrones past, they do not have it when it matters – as it is showing!

Part of the allure of Game of Thrones is that each episode brings an entire social thread with it. Not being able to take part in that, and worse, being continually exposed to the potential of spoilers is a terrible option for customers. The irony is that Game of Thrones is likely to be the last great show TV show. By TV I mean, I mean traditional TV. And by great, I mean one that comes along with the trappings of traditional TV schedules. A show, that has no direct route to its viewers. A show that is viewed around the world, primarily through intermediaries.

The fact is that the chances that the next “Game of Thrones” is coming from HBO are increasingly slim considering the investments and market access Amazon and Netflix have. Every year, their viewing numbers get bigger, the pockets get deeper and the freedom they provide to content creators increases. This is not say HBO don’t have a chance, they basically created the type of elevated, cinematic quality shows we now stream everyday. And they will continue to do so, the problem is, they are no longer the golden child. I am convinced HBO will continue to produce quality content, but it is unlikely that they will release a show that occupies the minds of such a significant market in the way Game of Thrones does.

The reality is that HBO are in their prime now. They are a company built on old assumptions and they are taking to0 long to shift their focus. It is likely they still have time, but time is running out. Game of Thrones is their best bet for launching a worldwide direct to customer streaming service without a customer thinking twice. HBO have already given away the back catalog. The upcoming Game of Thrones seasons are what will make signing up a no-brainer. Once that final show airs, HBO loses considerable leverage with potential customers and the choice is not so clear. Especially when Disney enter the fray.