Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Dear Internet: You Still Can’t Get HBO Without Paying for Cable

Lots of people who read sites like this site love the idea of paying for HBO without paying for cable.

So, news that Comcast and HBO are letting you do just that has lots of people very excited.

The problem is, that news isn’t accurate.

Or more precisely, lots of people are missing an important nuance: Comcast is letting its subscribers pay for HBO without buying as much pay TV as they used to. But you still can’t get HBO from Comcast unless you’re paying Comcast for TV, too.

You can see this for yourself by Googling “Comcast” and “HBO,” which will generate a (sponsored) link that gets you to a page like this, which will highlight something Comcast is calling its “Internet Plus” package, which gives you broadband, and a “skinny” selection of TV channels, and HBO. Depending on where you live, it will cost $50 or $40 month for a year.

Don’t like to Google? Okay. Here you go:

comcast hbo

So, again: If you’re looking for a deal where you just pay HBO a monthly fee, the same way you pay Netflix, and they stream their stuff right to your laptop or Apple TV, you’re not getting that here.

This deal still requires a set-top box, and a pay-TV subscription, which will get more expensive in the future — and which Comcast is hoping you’ll want to upgrade on your own, once you realize that you’re not getting sports from ESPN, or “Mad Men” from AMC, or any of the other basic cable channels most pay-TV subscribers get.

That said: If you really are okay with a very basic lineup, this is an intriguing offer. (And, by the way, it’s one that’s available to any pay-TV subscriber, period: If you call up your cable (or telco, or satellite) company, and tell them you only want a basic tier of service, and you want HBO, too, they are legally obliged to sell you that. But they won’t tell you about that, because up till now the pay-TV providers have tried to bundle HBO with deluxe packages of video.)

If Comcast gets lots of pickup here, you might see other pay-TV providers picking up on it. Even then, I don’t think it’s likely to make HBO any more willing to cut its ties to the pay-TV industry completely and go direct-to-consumer. I do think that it may end up putting more pressure on other cable programmers: If Comcast ends up selling lots of these packages, then it may make it harder for the folks at ESPN to argue that their sports programming is as essential as they say it is.

But that’s a discussion for a later date. The fine print says this offer will end at the end of January. Let’s see what Comcast says about its sales after that.

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik