Winter Comes Early: Access and HBO Go
May 22nd, 2011
When HBO announced that they would be premiering the seventh episode of Game of Thrones‘ first season on HBO Go immediately following the conclusion of episode six, I was more fascinated than excited.
I think HBO Go is a really interesting initiative that has the potential to play an important role in the future of the channel’s programming. Not only does it offer a new platform in which users can legally access the network’s database almost in its entirety, but it also creates new potential for special features being integrated into the weekly viewing process, and makes the network’s content more readily mobile. When I talked with my cable company to subscribe to HBO earlier today (after having relied solely on screeners to this point), the friendly customer service representative had a whole spiel about HBO Go ready to go, and was clearly using it as a pitch to draw in potential subscribers.
Premiering an episode early is a great way to make users more aware of the service, especially when dealing with the Game of Thrones fanbase who might not normally be HBO subscribers (and who might have only signed up this week, having relied on nefarious methods to this point in the series’ run); if they go to the site to watch episode seven early, they might also check out the pilot for True Blood, and might get hooked enough that they maintain their HBO subscriptions following the Game of Thrones finale.
However, there lies a central concern with HBO Go that makes this kind of initiative somewhat problematic: as a result of the nascent state of the site, a number of cable providers have not been able to strike deals with HBO to feature the service, and since it is tied directly into your cable account this means that a large number of people who are paying for HBO subscriptions do not have access to this sneak preview. While there is clear value from a promotional point of view in an initiative like this one, I do wonder if the way in which it divides the series’ fanbase and potentially bifurcates the conversation surrounding the series doesn’t demonstrate the perils of messing around with serialization in this fashion.
I recently wrote a seminar paper about the various transmedia initiatives surrounding Game of Thrones, which I discussed on the blog back in February. While I believe that those initiatives show a strong understanding of the series and were very effective at capturing the world of Westeros for both fans of the books and for new viewers, there is definitely a dual purpose of building a world and building buzz. The two are often one and the same, but when dealing with certain initiatives there were sacrifices of access (like having food trucks only in New York and Los Angeles) for the sake of making a larger impact within the public consciousness. Only a few thousand people got to enjoy a taste of Westeros, but hundreds of thousands likely heard about it thanks to its quality, which is the kind of marketing that HBO was looking for when they designed such an elaborate campaign. This means, however, that the vast majority of fans were unable to partake in the food trucks, which did create some unrest within small subsections of the fandom.
There are, of course, similar questions of access when it comes to the show itself: I’ve had the first six episodes for about two months, now, and so have many other critics and bloggers around the internet. This is something that networks always do in order to help build buzz around a series, which led to pieces from bloggers and critics alike which gave their readers a sense of what to expect. All of this is designed, in HBO’s case, to push people to consider subscribing to their service – because they are based on subscribers rather than advertising revenue (which I discussed a bit back in December), they have to get you to make a financial commitment up front in order to even start viewing a program. As a result, they are quite bullish with pre-air marketing initiatives, and were wise to send six episodes to critics to get them hooked and to work with Campfire on a campaign that would gain notoriety even if it meant sacrificing access for some people (as was also evidenced by the limited number of hand-crafted scent boxes sent out, for example).
However, this particular limitation of access is almost natural given that it came before the show premiered. Before something actually begins, there’s always a sort of shroud of secrecy around it, and the withholding of access is meant to build anticipation. There’s been a move recently, however, to use this anticipation to fuel online viewing. HBO’s prime competitor Showtime has been doing it for a while now, streaming the first episode from seasons of shows like Nurse Jackie online for both subscribers and non-subscribers ahead of its official premiere in order to drum up interest and potentially drive subscriptions. HBO is actually doing something similar with True Blood, as it will debut the first four minutes of the season four premiere on May 29th, exclusively on HBO Go.
Of course, they also did something similar with Game of Thrones, airing a complete fifteen minute preview earlier this Spring and then posting it online. However, they posted it on HBO.com, where it was available to both subscribers and non-subscribers alike. With this new subscriber-only model, HBO is also to push people into subscribing earlier than they might otherwise in order to gain early access to content: if HBO Go had been online when that fifteen-minute preview premiered, they might well have followed the same pattern there as well. It’s a smart strategy for pushing people to subscribe to the service, as it really does open up a whole world of content that displays the diversity evident within the HBO brand (including series, movies, comedy specials, documentaries, etc.).
However, the way that “You Win or You Die,” the seventh episode of Game of Thrones‘ first season, is being released is somewhat different. This is not a premiere being posted early for subscribers, nor is it a quick preview: this is an entire episode in the middle of a season being premiered a week in advance, something that I’ve never seen done in this fashion. I know that episodes of some series have gone live On Demand earlier during the day of their premiere (I think Starz did this when its shows went right to Netflix), but an entire week in advance is very uncommon.
And, frankly, it’s also incredibly problematic. My concern lies in the fact that it creates two different lines of serialization: those who watch on HBO Go, and those who do not. It separates conversation online, risking the further spread of spoilers and other developments (which is especially important given what actually happens in episode seven). Now, you might argue that the show already has this problem given that many people discussing the show have read the books and already know what’s about to happen, and you’d be right. However, part of what was unifying the readers and non-readers was their equal footing in regards to the series. If some people choose to wait for the HD version next week, or do not have a fast enough internet connection to stream it at any quality, then you’re sub-dividing your viewership and potentially disrupting the conversation.
Of course, the larger problem is that it isn’t just an issue of choice or internet connection: because of the cable companies who have not yet struck deals with HBO, there are some people who subscribe to HBO already but who are unable to utilize this service. I understand their hesitance to delay over what remains a minority of their subscribers, but choosing to do it with an episode in the middle of the season means that any customers of Time Warner Cable, Cablevision, and other smaller providers who subscribe to HBO (which constitutes 20% of their subscriber base) are not able to access the same services as those who subscribe with Charter/Comcast/etc,, and are going to be watching the show at a different pace should online viewing be something they would consider.
Now, let’s get this out of the way: I’m talking about a small percentage of HBO’s overall subscriber base, and it has yet to be seen how many viewers will actually choose to watch the episode online (more on that in a bit). But within the online space where HBO is looking to make an impact with this initiative, people are talking about this. These aren’t people too cheap to subscribe to HBO, the kind of people who have been pirating the series and are frustrated that this likely won’t find its way online early; these are people who have paid to subscribe to HBO content and yet are unable to access it. In Canada, HBO Canada is doing something similar (albeit with a slight delay until tomorrow morning), and they have the same problem: only those with Bell, Rogers and Videotron service have access to the HBO Canada Online streaming site.
I understand why HBO is sacrificing access: this is a fantastic way to make subscribers aware of this service, and the services available on HBO Go could convince people to continue their subscriptions for a longer period if they get hooked on Six Feet Under or decide to catch up on Boardwalk Empire. And in their defense, they are signed up with a large number of service providers, and I personally have access to the service and find it quite impressive. However, by sacrificing access for an episode in the middle of a season, the network is creating hierarchies of engagement that feel out of place within such a serialized show, and only exacerbate preexisting divisions within the viewership. It’s not the end of the world, but I do think that it’s an odd place for this particular experiment, which is more often seen before a show premieres.
Of course, as I wrote this piece, concerns over access became even more apparent as the site completely crashed under the weight of fans trying to watch the seventh episode online – I got halfway through the opening credits before my video stopped playing, and when it finally started up again eighty minutes later it was considerably worse in quality than it was before. On the one hand, this shows that their strategy is working, and people are signing up for the service and potentially singing up to receive emails and further allowing HBO’s hooks to dig in. However, on the other hand, it shows how a lack of access can draw the ire of the fan community: because some services/devices were able to access the site fine, suddenly an elite handful had seen the episode while technical difficulties had kept countless others from doing the same.
If there’s a lesson here, it’s perhaps an issue of timing: while this is HBO’s first major push towards HBO Go in terms of their currently airing series, and the timing makes sense based on how recently the service was released, it comes at such a crucial time within the narrative that dividing the online discussion that has been so vibrant for the show just doesn’t make any sense to me. This isn’t just a handful of critics seeing it early, or a few thousand people tasting food that others don’t get to taste: this is a fairly substantial group seeing the story continue before anyone else, and I’m not convinced that this disruption is worth the added value.
Of course, once I actually sit down and enjoy the novelty of seeing the episode a week early (since screeners were not sent out beyond the sixth episode), I may have a different opinion.
Edit: Now that the stream finally decided to work at 2am, three thoughts:
First, the actual quality of the stream was quite impressive once it worked – I’m only working on a 13″ Macbook, but it looked pretty close to high definition, and was certainly a satisfactory viewing experience despite the delay.
Second, the actual episode is perhaps my favorite yet: some really tremendous bits of foreshadowing through the introduction of news scenes, some memorable scenes from the books brought to life effectively, and a definite sense of “thrill” coming from the momentum being gained here. I’ll obviously have more detailed thoughts next Sunday, but that will have to do for now.
Third, the fan conversation seems to have gone on much as it was before, especially since Episode Seven touches on a number of book scenes of great importance. There are a few people who have asked for more details, though, and at least a few people writing full recaps to try to capitalize in the traffic involved. I’ll be interested in seeing how many fans who haven’t watched the episode still jump into the conversation and just pick up on the bits of context as they go along.
- When I noted above that the HBO Go archive was less than complete, I was speaking specifically regarding Lucky Louie (although many other shows are missing) – I actually wrote about its erasure from HBO history as part of a paper last semester, so to see it absent here only proves my point regarding the network’s concern over even being affiliated with a multi-camera sitcom.
- I will be updating this post with a few thoughts on the episode itself as well as some reflections on how the open discussion that has been opened over at Winter is Coming unfolds – I’m especially curious to see how many book readers wade into the discussion to ask questions abut how the episode’s events were handled, thus creating a scenario where people who haven’t read the books might be transformed into experts for a brief period.