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Will HBO’s Free Content Strategy Spark a New Wave?

HBOHBO wants you watching its programs even if they have to offer them for free— temporarily, that is.

A wide number of people feel no need to pay for a premium cable channel anymore, so the network is doing more than ever to lure them in, especially after premium channels have seen a decline in new subscribers while Netflix and other video streaming services are surging.

And if that wasn’t enough, HBO’s multi-million dollar juggernaut “Game of Thrones” is the most pirated show ever. HBO knows it has to get new subscribers in order to make up for the costs of production; being a “premium” channel is a luxury that simply won’t sustain them anymore.

The network’s latest strategy is something I’m sure many premium channels never dreamed of doing, even just a few years ago. HBO has been strategically allowing access to content for free, like releasing classic shows such like “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City” to Amazon Prime members for no additional cost.

On the Amazon partnership, HBO’s CMO, Pamela Levine recently said: “It gives us the opportunity to expose other people and additional consumers to the shows and to get them hooked, which is what our programming does.”  And they’ve been giving non-HBO subscribers that opportunity around some other shows too. For its hit series “True Blood,” HBO released the premiere episode of its final season on Xbox; for its newest show, “The Leftovers,” the network released the premiere episode on YahooScreen for a limited time.

But HBO faces stiff competition in the late night talk show market. These shows all thrive on viral content that’s shared the next day on social media. HBO seems to be competing by leveraging its newest talent, John Oliver. They released the premiere episode of “Last Week Tonight” on YouTube, which previously served as a great success for “Silicon Valley” and other millennial- focused shows. Since then, the network has continued to release weekly clips from the show via YouTube, knowing that platform increases the chances of the show being seen by millennials, who aren’t the biggest fans of paying for content. One clip, featuring Oliver’s take on the World Cup,  has nearly 7 million views since going up earlier this month.

It will be interesting to see if HBO temporarily releases episodes of its biggest hits, like “Game of Thrones” and “True Detective,” for free. This would signal an all-in approach, and might produce a new wave of expanding content to mass audiences. It might also force its competitors to follow suit.  Premium content simply can’t survive relying on its old model, as viewers have clearly demonstrated they don’t want to be tied down to cable’s old ways. Audiences are demanding more from networks, so we’ll see how much premium channels are willing to give into those demands.

Survival of the fittest, right?

This is a guest post written by Kimberlee Van Der Wall, who is a social TV expert who previously worked at GetGlue (now tvtag). You can find more on her website, and follow her at @KimberleeVDW.

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