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Why HBO and Pay TV Still Aren't Getting Divorced

HBO and the cable guys might push more "skinny" TV + broadband bundles. But they're still not splitting up.

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.

Reminder: You still can’t get HBO without paying for other TV channels, too.

But you can still get a cheapish package that includes HBO, some other TV channels and broadband Internet for $50 or less, per month, depending on where you live.

Sort of.

This public service announcement is prompted by a Bloomberg report noting that HBO is considering pushing more of the deals they debuted last fall, when they worked with Comcast to offer a “skinny bundle” of TV + broadband for $40 or $50 a month.

The broader gist of the report is that HBO is very important to Time Warner, and now to Rupert Murdoch, too, and that Time Warner wants to prove it can add more HBO subscribers. More on that in a second.

First, a reminder of what HBO offers today: Generally, pay TV companies market HBO as a premium service that’s only available if you’re already paying for a bunch of other TV channels. Which means you’re already shelling out more than $100 a month before you can qualify to binge on “Game of Thrones” and the rest.

But starting last fall, Comcast began offering packages which let you get Internet access, a couple dozen channels and HBO for $40 or $50 a month. The cable giant* has stopped pushing the offers. But it turns out it sells them — you just need to poke around a bit to find them.

Now AT&T and Verizon are marketing similar deals, with a little more visibility.

Verizon HBO $50

AT&T HBO $40

The main thing you need to know about these deals is that they are all temporary. After a year at the $40 or $50 price, they will get much more expensive. Comcast’s $50 a month plan, for instance, will jump up to $70 a month.

So despite commentary that suggests otherwise, these really aren’t designed for people who just want broadband and a little bit of TV — they’re designed to move new customers into the TV Industrial Complex, so they can pay for a full package of broadband and TV, just like the rest of us.

OK. So what about future plans, which Bloomberg sort-of hints at, and that every single Internet user, ever, always says they want: HBO’s HBO Go service, sold Netflix-style, without a pay TV subscription, to anyone who wants it?

It could happen! But not anytime soon. If you’ve read any of these stories before, you can stop now — but in case this is a new idea: HBO always leaves the door open for this possibility, but then always makes it clear that it doesn’t want to do it.

That’s because HBO depends on the pay TV providers to market the service, and it figures that the loss of that help would hurt it much more than the ability to sell HBO to cord-cutters and cord-nevers. (Nor does parent company Time Warner, which has other pay TV-dependent businesses, want to endanger those.)

This could change, one day, if pay TV subscriptions fall far enough to convince HBO it’s time to make the leap.

But right now HBO is generating $1.8 billion in annual profit for Time Warner, and it’s supposedly the reason Rupert Murdoch wants to buy the entire company for all the gold in the Iron Bank. So it’s going to stay put a while longer.

*Comcast owns NBCUniversal, which is a minority investor in Re/code.

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