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You Can Watch Jon Stewart's HBO Stuff on Your TV. But HBO Hopes You Watch It on the Internet.

HBO's newest star won't be digital-only. But the company wants to use him to push its digital agenda.

Brad Barket/Getty Images for Comedy Central
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 that next year you’ll be able to watch Jon Stewart, their newest star signing, on HBO Go and HBO Now, its digital TV services.

But if you insist, you won’t have to watch Stewart over the Internet. The company says — if you ask them, because they’re not volunteering this — that Stewart’s stuff will be available, in one form or another, on good old-fashioned HBO, delivered from your cable TV provider to your TV. With a cord.

That’s because HBO’s contracts with the pay TV providers require the programmer to offer parity on any new platforms it rolls out: If you can watch it on HBO Now, the service it sells directly to consumers for $15 a month, you need to be able to see it on an HBO subscription you buy from Time Warner Cable or Charter. The same goes for HBO Go, the digital service it bundles in with traditional pay TV subscriptions.

HBO hasn’t spelled out how this will work in practice. But the most likely scenario is the digital shorts that Stewart creates for them will appear as part of cable subscribers’ on-demand options. So you’ll have to go get Stewart’s stuff instead of having it appear on your screen while you surf. The same goes for some of the stuff former ESPN star Bill Simmons makes for HBO, while we’re at it.*

But HBO’s press release plays up the idea that Stewart’s stuff will appear on its digital platforms, without even mentioning conventional subscriptions. That’s not an accident: HBO CEO Richard Plepler, a former PR guy who is very aware of what he says and how he says it, wants to use Stewart (and Simmons, and anyone else he signs up with a digital bent) as a marketing tool to push digital. If you end up thinking that the only way you can watch Stewart is via HBO Go or Now, he probably wouldn’t be unhappy with that.

It’s important for Plepler to push digital, particularly Now, for a couple reasons. Obviously, he’d like to sell more subscriptions. But he’d also like to find any leverage he can to get pay TV providers like Comcast** to get on board and support HBO Now by selling it themselves. The traditional pay TV guys have largely given Plepler the cold shoulder — presumably because they’re not pleased that he’s selling a product that encourages cord-cutting — and while Plepler has been arguing with them publicly and privately for some time, they haven’t budged.

Maybe Jon Stewart can help Plepler move them.

* How quickly they show up there is another question. HBO says Stewart will make “timely short-form digital content, which will be refreshed on HBO Now multiple times throughout the day.” I’m not sure how quickly that content will appear on the TV guys’ on-demand services, which makes it less valuable there.
** Comcast is an investor in Vox Media, which owns this website.

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