Last night, HBO tied off “True Detective’s” circle of violence and degradation in a triumphant, terrifying finale that was the perfect end to one of the greatest seasons of television ever produced. But for a lot of viewers, instead of watching Rust and Marty fight bad guys, eat banh mi, and philosophize about the nature of consciousness, they just saw this screen. For hours. Time is a flat circle, alright: It’s HBO Go’s beguiling loading ring.
At 9:50 ET, HBO acknowledged the problem in a tweet: “Due to overwhelmingly popular demand for #TrueDetective, we’ve been made aware of an issue affecting some users. Please try again soon.” My friend, an actual HBO subscriber, joked that it’d be faster (and not exactly unethical either) to download the episode off an illegal file-sharing site. This set up a maddening situation where fans not only couldn’t watch “True Detective,” they couldn’t go to any other websites for fear of spoilers. It basically broke the entire Internet.
Many observers feared Netflix’s second season debut of House of Cards might similarly “break the Internet.” But those concerns were over bandwidth allocation and peering, things that aren’t entirely in Netflix’s control. This was an issue of server overload on the part of HBO — it simply wasn’t prepared for so many to tune into this dark, hyper-literate meditation on evil.
Of course, making a show that resonates with too many people is a good problem to have. The question is, if HBO’s goal is to be a great content company, which it undeniably is, does it also have to be a great technology company like Netflix?
The answer to this Rust Cohle-ian philosophical question comes down to whether you view HBO and Netflix as competitors. Despite having fewer subscribers, HBO’s profits last year were eight times bigger than Netflix’s. Netflix is not far behind when it comes to revenue, but its operating expenses are far greater. You have to wonder whether it’s even worth it for HBO Go to invest a ton of its resources into improving its website, especially when you’ve got HBO CEO Richard Plepler saying he doesn’t care if HBO subscribers share their password with friends, which was certainly a factor in last night’s outage. “It’s not that we’re unmindful of it. It just has no impact on the business.”
Does that mean HBO Go is just icing on the cake? As long as the traditional cable-watchers are happy, it’s okay for the online offering to sputter?
To hear Plepler tell it, HBO Go is not unlike the freemium models we see from Spotify and others, calling it a “terrific marketing vehicle for the next generation of viewers.” In other words, users can have the “free version” (meaning they use a friend or family member’s password) but it’s not going to be as reliable as the television offering. I wouldn’t go so far to say HBO Go’s bugginess helps HBO — the notion that freemium models consistently convert users into paid subscribers is far from settled. But it may not hurt much either.
While it’s a common meme to call HBO and Netflix competitors, it’s not quite that simple. Yes, HBO is becoming more like a technology company and Netflix (and Hulu and Amazon Instant Video) are becoming more like content companies, producing original programming. And there may come a time when TV networks are expected have digital offerings that are as robust as any tech companies (Gmail outages lasting only a matter of minutes cause Internet-wide revolts). But for HBO at least, the old cable-subscriber model is still alive and kicking.