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HBO Says It's Going to Start Selling on the Web Next Year

The company will go "beyond the wall" and launch a "stand-alone, over the top" version of HBO in the U.S. next year.

Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

HBO says it’s finally ready: Sometime in the next year the pay-TV service will be selling a Web-only offering.

HBO CEO Richard Plepler, speaking at an investor presentation hosted by HBO parent company Time Warner, said the company will start selling in 2015 a digital version of its service that won’t require a pay-TV subscription.

Plepler said the company will go “beyond the wall” and launch a “stand-alone, over the top” version of HBO in the U.S. next year, and would work with “current partners,” and may work with others as well. But he wouldn’t provide any other detail.

Even that vague statement is a milestone for HBO, Time Warner and the TV business in general. For years, Time Warner and HBO have said they’re happy with the existing system, where HBO is sold to consumers by TV providers, and is usually only available to customers who are already buying another bundle of TV networks.

That arrangement helped generate $4.9 billion in revenue for HBO last year, and also kept pay-TV providers like Comcast* happy.

But now, under pressure from investors to show that Time Warner can extract more value from HBO, Plepler and Time Warner seem willing to risk upsetting that structure. The move will also be seen as a response to the rise of Netflix, which has more than 50 million subscribers for its Web video service, and may generate more revenue than HBO this year.

The upside is that HBO will be able to market itself to customers who don’t want to buy a full “bundle” of pay-TV channels, or may not get any pay-TV package at all, a number Plepler pegged at 10 million. The downside is that the Comcasts of the world, which HBO will still want to market its service, may punish the company.

Other big TV networks have also discussed an interest in selling programming directly to consumers. ESPN, for instance, has said it will sell a package of NBA games to digital subscribers in the next few years. But in that case, the company has taken pains to argue that it won’t sell a product that competes with the one it’s already selling via pay TV.

Plepler’s brief statement about its “over the top” plans didn’t spell out the way the company would market and deliver HBO on the Web. It’s possible that the company will build out its own technology to do so. But I’ve also heard industry sources suggest that HBO would work with other companies that are already selling video on the Web, like Amazon and Hulu, to deliver its programming. HBO already has a wide-ranging content deal with Amazon.

He also didn’t discuss whether the Web version of HBO will be a mirror of the version available to pay-TV customers. Analysts have previously suggested that HBO might consider a “windowed” version of its TV service on the Web, where shows like “True Detective” and “Game of Thrones” don’t appear until months after they debut on TV.

It’s important to note that much of Plepler’s presentation focused on HBO’s plans to build out its traditional business, by getting better terms from its existing pay-TV partners, and by getting pay-TV subscribers who aren’t paying for HBO to sign on — while continuing to pay for other TV channels.

Here’s the press release:

Speaking at the Time Warner Inc. Investor Meeting today, Richard Plepler, chairman and CEO, HBO, announced that the company will offer a stand-alone HBO streaming service in 2015. Following a portion of his presentation focused on HBO’s domestic business, during which he cited significant growth opportunities inside the pay-TV universe, Plepler then turned to the current ten million broadband-only homes, which is projected to grow.

Plepler then added:

“That is a large and growing opportunity that should no longer be left untapped. It is time to remove all barriers to those who want HBO.

“So, in 2015, we will launch a stand-alone, over-the-top, HBO service in the United States. We will work with our current partners. And, we will explore models with new partners. All in, there are 80 million homes that do not have HBO and we will use all means at our disposal to go after them.”

* Comcast owns NBCUniversal, which is a minority investor in Revere Digital, Re/code’s parent company.

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