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8 June 2012

“Take my money, HBO!“: Why you won’t be able to watch Game of Thrones online anytime soon in the UK

Why HBO don't want your money.

By Alex Hern

Take My Money, HBO is a growing online campaign aimed at getting HBO, the American subscriber-TV network and home of the Sopranos, Game of Thrones and Curb Your Enthusiasm, to provide those without American cable, both “cord-cutters” and international audiences, a way to pay directly for the channels HBO streams through its HBOGO online service.

Currently, you can only receive HBOGO – the company’s equivalent of BBC’s iPlayer – if you subscribe to a participating American cable channel. Which isn’t the best thing to tell people who want to move all their TV viewing online, or who don’t actually live in America.

There are other ways to get HBO content, of course; you can wait until the DVD box set comes out, or buy it from iTunes once it is released there. But both of those are on a huge delay; the downloads and DVDs for Game of Thrones were finally made available this March, 11 months after the series started airing.

Alternatively, there is piracy. The day after most episodes aired, they were available in HD, for free, on sites like The Pirate Bay.

Clearly, that’s not optimal. This comic, from earlier this year, neatly sums up the issues many had: Programs have aired, people are talking about them, but without a 1990s-style TV set-up, you can’t actually watch them legally.

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Hence, “Take My Money”. The site asks users to tweet at HBOGO the amount they would be willing to pay for a subscription to the service; the average suggestiong is around $12 a month, according to TechCrunch

The business rationale at the first instance seems compelling. Digitopoly’s Joshua Gans explains:

HBO has 29 million subscribers in the US paying around $10 per month. HBO receives $8 of that. That would seem to suggest that HBO couldn’t lose by offering a $12 per month subscription.

The fear for the company could be that, if they made another way to access their content, the cable companies would reduce their cut of the premium. But as Gans points out, in the US, where cable is the main form of broadband, most will keep a subscription of some sort anyway, and internationally, many have no option to get HBO at all.

The bigger problem is that HBO is far more intricately tied-up in the standard model of TV distribution than they might like to be. For one thing, it is in fact owned by Time Warner, the American broadcasting giant. For another, as Dan Frommer points out, there simply isn’t the right infrastructure for such a thing to happen. HBO would have to support every major video game console, Mac OS, Windows, and probably Apple TV just to have a hope of getting on enough TV screens to even pay the money it cost to set up the system, let alone recoup the lost revenue from cancelled subscriptions.

And internationally the situation isn’t much better. In the UK, Sky has forked out a reported £150m for a five-year exclusive with HBO; you can bet they wouldn’t have paid nearly that much if it was available to anyone paying £10 online.

All of which means that if you are in the small (but likely over-represented in the New Statesman’s readership) percentage of the UK population which watches barely any TV except for high-quality US imports, you are likely to have to carry on waiting or pirating for some time. Disruption may come to the market, but unless they are forced to, HBO just aren’t going to take your moeny.