The True Detective finale has come and gone, but judging from the furious emails that have been flying around the Slate listserv, the raw feelings over HBO Go’s Sunday-night outage are still lingering among a certain set of television connoisseurs.
And so is a misconception about HBO’s business philosophy. I promise you, the network is not actively encouraging, or even tacitly condoning, people who beg, borrow, or steal passwords to their streaming service for the sake of exposure. Really. It’s not.
Before getting into the weeds on this, some background. If you subscribe to HBO on cable, you get its online streaming service, HBO Go, as part of the bargain. But much to the chagrin of every broke twentysomething TV fan who doesn’t care about ESPN or Bravo (and there are more than a few), you cannot buy HBO Go à la carte without also paying for a cable package. There’s a good reason for this: HBO’s parent company, Time Warner, is a massive media conglomerate with no interest in giving people a reason to skip out on buying a full cable package. And, since HBO benefits from Time Warner’s financial health and distribution powers, it, too, has an interest in keeping the cable bundle as we’ve all come to know and loathe it wrapped neatly together.
So what do the broke kids do? They borrow passwords from their friends and family, and watch for free. When HBO Go crashed under the weight of viewers trying to pull up True Detective on Sunday, the big joke was that half the people moaning on Twitter were griping about the quality of a service they weren’t paying for.
Now here’s where that misconception I mentioned comes into play.
Back in January, the network’s CEO, Richard Plepler, told BuzzFeed that he wasn’t overly concerned about young people borrowing their parents’ passwords for the streaming service, and that it might even benefit HBO by luring new viewers who would one day subscribe. BuzzFeed proceeded to run a post titled, “HBO’s CEO Doesn’t Care That You Are Sharing Your HBO Go Password.” And because the Internet is an endless game of telephone, that birthed articles with headlines like, “Don’t Bother Subscribing, HBO Wants Your to Use Your Friends’ HBO Go Logins”—which in turn got hot on Reddit.
If you’re under the impression that HBO really wants you to pilfer its programming for the sake of exposure, then it might seem semi-reasonable to demand a higher level of service.
But that is not what Plepler actually said. When BuzzFeed’s Peter Lauria asked about the password-stealing issue, the CEO responded: “It’s not material to our business, number one. It’s not that we are unmindful of it, but it has no real effect on the business.” He then indeed suggested that the kids who used their parents’ passwords today might subscribe tomorrow. “To us, it’s in many ways a terrific marketing vehicle for the next generation of viewers, and it is actually not material at all to our business growth.”
To lay readers, that might sound like a green light to freeload. But more likely, it was just Plepler delivering an answer that wouldn’t spook investors. “Not material” is SEC-approved speak for “nothing to see here, move along.” When Plepler says there might even be an upside, it seemed like one more way to assure anybody with a financial interest in HBO’s performance that there’s nothing amiss.
But here’s the key exchange with BuzzFeed’s Peter Lauria:
Lauria: So the strategy is you ignore it now in the hopes that they’ll subscribe down the line?
Plepler: It's not that we're ignoring it. And we're working on different ways to affect password sharing. I'm simply telling you it's not a fundamental problem. And the externality is it presents the brand to more and more people.
Which is to say, they’re looking into the problem, but it’s not a pressing concern or a danger to their profits. Benign neglect is not the same thing as encouragement. So however ticked you may feel about your viewing experience on Sunday, remember, HBO isn’t in the business of giving you more than you pay for.