Missed the debut of John Oliver’s new show on HBO this past Sunday? Don’t worry—you can find it on YouTube. And Last Week Tonight with John Oliver didn’t wind up on the video-sharing site thanks to a copyright-skirting pirate. The pay cable channel itself uploaded the episode.
It’s not the first time HBO has turned to YouTube to build buzz about a new series. A few weeks back, HBO put the series premiere of Silicon Valley, a comedy based on San Francisco’s startup culture from Mike Judge—on YouTube. Before that, the network had done the same thing with the third-season premiere episode of Girls, as well as the debut episodes for Looking, Getting On, and Ja’Mie: Private School Girl.
So what gives? Why is a pay TV service that commands anywhere from $10 to $20 a month from cable subscribers offering some of its programming for free?
“This is a marketing strategy developed to provide a sampling opportunity for non-subscribers,” Janine McGoldrick of HBO’s PR arm told TechHive when we posed the question. “We have used this strategy for the last few years for select new series launches and the sampling is only available for a limited time.”
So maybe this isn’t part of a larger streaming strategy by HBO. (That Silicon Valley episode, for example, has since disappeared from YouTube.) But it does reflect the changing way we consume programming. “We used to just watch cable television,” notes industry analyst Jeff Kagan. “Going forward we can watch it on our televisions, or computers or tablets or smartphones or smartwatches and so on. We can watch it from home or when we travel. Television is changing going forward. HBO may have been a winner yesterday, but they are at risk for tomorrow. That’s why they are making this move—to stay relevant and competitive and successful.”
Companies like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon produce original programming for their customers that rivals what you can find on HBO, and that challenges the status quo of content delivery at a time when more TV watchers are cutting the cord. That’s a risk to established players like HBO, forcing them to change their approach to online media. And if that means building up an audience for a new show by making it available on YouTube, so be it.
The real question, though is what’s next? Television is continuing to evolve, and established networks have to keep up with the changes or risk being left behind with the click of a remote.