You still can’t get new HBO shows, like this season’s “Game of Thrones,” without paying for TV.
But starting in May, you’ll be able to get some of the premium cable channel’s older stuff online — via an Amazon Prime subscription.
That means Amazon Prime subscribers will be able to see shows that have already run on HBO, like The Sopranos and The Wire. And they can also watch older seasons of some shows that are still on the air, like Girls, three years after they air.
It’s the first time HBO has offered access to its catalog via a streaming video service that’s not its own HBO Go. And it gives Amazon an important bragging right/differentiation point as it tries to gain ground on rival Netflix.
A person familiar with the deal says HBO did not shop the catalog to Netflix or other potential Amazon rivals.
Unlike HBO subscribers who use HBO Go, Amazon customers won’t be able to get all of HBO’s library. The omissions tell an interesting story about the state of digital licensing.
Some of the shows that Amazon customers won’t see, including “Sex and the City,” “Entourage” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” have their streaming rights tied up in syndication deals with TV outlets. And HBO has kept at least one of its shows – “Game of Thrones” — out of the deal, simply because the property is so valuable to the network, according to a person familiar with the transaction.
The absence of “Game of Thrones” also speaks to the balancing act HBO is trying to pull off here. It wants to make more money from shows it has already sold to its paying subscribers, without giving those subscribers any reason to leave.
That’s not entirely new territory for HBO, which already sells digital versions of its older shows — including Game of Thrones — via outlets like Amazon and Apple’s iTunes store.
It also wants to assure the pay-TV operators that carry HBO that it’s not undercutting the offering it is wholesaling to them. A person close to HBO says the money the network makes from its Amazon deal will be plowed back into developing more programming and improving the company’s technology.
The upside for Amazon in this deal is clear — it gets a big, shiny brand it can use to set itself apart from the competition. It could also work well for HBO, and may even help the company market itself to non-subscribers.
The danger for HBO is that it may teach non-subscribers — and perhaps some current subscribers — that they don’t need to pay for an HBO subscription (and perhaps, a TV subscription at all) if they’re willing to be patient.
Either HBO figures that’s a risk it can take — or it’s a risk it has to take.
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