Alec Stern: How HBO plans to revolutionize TV ... again

By Alec Stern, Daily TV Columnist
Published October 19, 2014

“I am a millennial. Generation Y. Born between the birth of AIDS and 9/11, give or take. They call us the global generation. We are known for our entitlement and narcissism. Some say it’s because we are the first generation where every kid gets a trophy just for showing up. Others think it’s because social media allows us to post every time we fart or have a sandwich for all the world to see.” – Madison Montgomery, “American Horror Story: Coven”

I am a millennial. Generation Y. Born in 1993, the same week the first “Jurassic Park” hit theaters, part of this generation Ryan Murphy rightfully claims is known for our entitlement and narcissism. We are the Now Generation. The generation of instant gratification. We want what we want, when we want it, how we want it. We think e-mail is too slow a form of communication. Our Twitter and Instagram feeds continuously update like a never-ending filtered fantasy; a competition of who’s better than whom. Recent additions to the Oxford Dictionaries, courtesy of our generation, include humblebrag, First World Problem and selfie — the culmination of our own admiration that has inspired television series, taglines and an endless obsession with cameras that point at our own faces. We are the Now Generation.

In the future, we’ll reminisce with our children about a time when television was an engagement — when you had to sit down in front of one device at the same exact time as millions of strangers. Before Netflix. Before DVR. A time when if you wanted to watch “Friends,” you did so Thursday night at 8 p.m. But in the 10 years since that NBC comedy ended, everything’s changed.

Netflix will always have the distinction of being the first; its signature red logo synonymous with streaming and binge culture. It’s the service that pioneered online television with “House of Cards” and “Orange Is The New Black” and made its streaming website the envy of the industry. And it’s that proliferation into the cultural zeitgeist that has encouraged consumers — consumers of our generation — to demand more and more from our television screens (or our television shows that we actually now watch on our phones and tablets.)

Starting in 2015, Time Warner and HBO will make a long-rumored move: HBO Go, direct to consumer. Though the specifics of the deal are still developing, the service will presumably offer the premium network’s vast catalog of series and films — including originals like “Game of Thrones,” “The Sopranos” and “The Normal Heart,” as well as theatricals from partners like Warner Bros. and Universal — all without any cable subscription.

Like HBO paved the way for original cable television, the network will likely set off an industry chain reaction of offerings in the streaming sphere; most networks already feature streaming as a supplement to their cable package. From HBO Go to Showtime Anytime to FX Now, any network has the means to make a similar play.

But this entire future will hinge on HBO Go’s yet-to-be-released pricing plan. For us Gen Y kids, that ideal world in which you only pay for the services you want, and any content on any network is just a click away, is still yet to come.

Streaming doesn’t eliminate consumers’ reliance on cable companies, who will continue to provide the Internet service needed to access HBO Go or Netflix. And as long as they’re in charge, they’ll make sure it’s cheaper for you to add a full TV service to your Internet package than to pick and choose from standalone services that would bypass their TV offerings entirely. For the same price — or less — as subscribing to a selection of streaming services, you’ll be able to buy a full premium cable service from Comcast or Verizon; HBO, Showtime and all the series about murder investigations and cupcake baking battles you don’t watch or even know exist, but also don’t realize are actually a good investment to make.

One thing is certain, however. Time Warner and HBO set off industry fireworks. Just one day after the HBO Go announcement, CBS unveiled its own streaming service — CBS All Access. For six dollars per month, All Access will offer thousands of episodes of present and past programming (which includes “Twin Peaks” and “Star Trek”), as well as the most up-to-date episodes of current series (like “The Good Wife”). And that’s not all; in 14 of CBS’ biggest markets (including New York City, Los Angeles and Detroit), All Access will offer live streaming of network programming. In addition to the monthly fee, the content will still include advertisements — and let’s not forget CBS is still technically a free network. But despite being shrouded beneath the cloud of HBO Go frenzy, CBS’ announcement was deceivingly groundbreaking; the country’s No. 1 network getting Generation Y-friendly.

We are the Now Generation, and television — once appointment entertainment — is becoming yet another thing we can take control of. Go. Anytime. All Access. What you want. When you want it. Where you want it. This is the beginning of the most revolutionary change since color television. Sit back, relax and enjoy the stream.

Alec Stern can be reached at alecs@umich.edu and @AlecHaydenStern on Twitter