Today, I was going to write a review for your Game of Thrones' third season premiere. I had a page of careful notes. I'd triple-checked how to spell "Daenerys." I prepared commentary on Tyrion's dismissive-satire-as-subtle-insecurity, something that only HBO could have executed so well.
But instead, I simply have a question, HBO. When did you become so afraid?
Your shows consistently push television's boundaries; your distribution models cower behind spreadsheets and cautious executives. I know I'm not the first person to complain about this. I'm aware of the noble (but failed) campaign from last summer. I've seen your crony's cleverly condescending response.
But it's time to admit what this is really about: fear. You won't offer standalone content at a single price per month, because the cable companies might get mad. They might lose a few subscribers who finally realize paying for 113 separate stations is certifiably insane. Perhaps they'll scale back their (lousy and frankly, irrelevant) advertising for your phenomenal shows. No more lions and tigers and cable budgets. Oh my!
I'm not a cable subscriber, but I've watched every Game of Thrones episode to date. How? I borrowed HBO GO passwords, downloaded illegal copies from friends, found shady online streams, and squinted through one episode on YouTube uploaded from a guy's iPhone 3GS. (Speaking of, what did happen in the first half of episode 5…the guy's buddy was sort of standing in the way.)
I actually saw season 3's first episode at a friend's house, legally. It turns out he's the only person under 30 in all of Santa Barbara who pays for cable. If you're tracking with me, that's approximately 20,000 people (TV-watchers under 30) who love and watch Game of Thrones in my city, and one paying customer. Enjoy that $14.95.
I understand your CEO, Richard Plepler, recently murmured something about a possible broadband provider package deal. I also understand that the House of Representatives pledged to compromise during campaign season. I appreciate your kind, disingenuous words.
Weren't you the network that dared to air The Sopranos, a series confident enough to star a bitter, vindictive wise guy? Didn't you bring television to a new, literary, novelistic level by green-lighting The Wire? Wasn't it your network that created TV-Western-for-the-21st-century Deadwood? Didn't you make the world's most innovative, admired psychiatric drama, In Treatment? Aren't you the network currently responsible for Girls, a show that risks grappling with the realities of a younger, poorer, frustrated generation of misfits?
The HBO of 2000 pioneered a television revolution, trusting that viewers would prefer thoughtful, difficult stories to the formulaic procedurals of years past. It was risky, but you were right. Let me know when that HBO returns. Let me know when you, the cowardly HBO of 2013, want to embrace the future of creative media, to take a short-term monetary risk in return for creating millions of new admiring, income-earning, technologically-savvy fans.
Or play it safe like Borders and Blockbuster Video. It's up to you.
Ben would like to thank Alan Sepinwall for his book, The Revolution was Televised, for its descriptions and observations on many of HBO's shows, which helped inform his research for this letter.