Where select networks have a lot to gain from an a la carte approach, those same networks have a lot to lose if online alternatives continue to pervade in such a way that renders any connections between program and network virtually absent for the average viewer. Sure, your given sports fan or news junkie might want all-day access to ESPN and CNN, but viewers invested in select fictional series have in many ways already bypassed the a la carte approach to TV viewing by devoting time to individual series with dedicated followings like Community or Breaking Bad within their own schedule. But NBC will still want you to tune in Thursday nights even after Community gets moved to Fridays, and AMC wants you to watch their newest prime-time drama after the last episode of Breaking Bad airs this year.
With the vast changes taking place in how people watch TV, the measures that networks will have to take to remain competitive and maintain a brand is uncertain.
AMC and HBO
AMC is a prime case study for the evolution of TV viewing activities. For years, AMC was the inferior version of TMC, having far fewer rights to studio vaults than its Ted Turner-owned competitor. But when AMC got into original programming five years ago with the first season of Mad Men, it followed with a string of successful shows and made-for-TV movies that established the basic cable network as a bona fide competitor with premium cable channels like Showtime and HBO (where Mad Men was initially pitched).
But premium cable dramas are known for their short runs; these shows aren’t designed to be the next Law & Order. After two more seasons, Mad Men will end, but AMC will want you to continue watching their original programming as it seeks to maintain a reputation of “quality entertainment.” How else could so many of us have been duped into following The Killing for so long if it weren’t on the same network as Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Price, Walter White, and The Walking Dead? If you selectively watch one of AMC’s shows but don’t invest in the idea of AMC as a network, then AMC no longer successfully functions in the way that cable networks have defined themselves since the advent of cable.
And this is why today’s TV audiences are encountering a unique conundrum with HBO. The network that basically created what quality non-broadcast television looks like has, with its ebbs and flows, managed a continual output of programming that has retained significant audience interest. Today, it’s biggest draw is in its genre programming: i.e., Game of Thrones and True Blood.
But just as HBO is known for its engrossing original shows, miniseries, and TV movies, the network is equally notorious for limiting the availability of its content via alternative outlets. An antagonism has grown between viewers and the network (an antagonism that has been credited to the rampant piracy of HBO content). This practice has put HBO at something of a crossroads (or, at least in the eyes of its fans). On the one hand, HBO as a brand that delivers a certain type of programming remains as solid as it has ever been specifically because it distinguishes itself not only by its content, but by exclusionary practices like these. And make no mistake: if cable providers lose HBO content to outlets like Netflix streaming, even residually, it’s a big threat to their (antiquated) way of doing business.
On the other hand, people are not watching TV as they used to. That HBO Go is available only to those who already subscribe to the network simply makes less and less sense to viewers who see a decreasing need to actually own a TV in their household. Piracy of HBO content is not likely to decrease.
Perhaps more than any other cable network, HBO is the symbol of the crossroads that TV has met in its mass proliferation on the Internet and continued competition with non-cable exhibitors. Not only are cable providers at a decisive moment in terms of how they’ll adapt to a changing media landscape (the DOJ investigation is only part of this inevitable change), but networks are in a situation where they must find a way to continue to define themselves even as viewers experience content not by the channel but by the series, or by the individual $1.99 episode. The network that proclaims, “It’s not TV. It’s HBO.” now looks more like “TV” than any other network out there.