When ESPN announced the end of its 14-year relationship with columnist and Grantland founder Bill Simmons, he faced no shortage of potential suitors: Fox Sports, Bleacher Report, Vice, and venture capital-funded free agency. But Simmons bucked expectations by finding a less obvious new home: HBO.
In retrospect, it's easy to see why HBO would look so enticing to Simmons. By signing a cross-platform multi-year deal, he secures a stage for his particular brand of wide-ranging, iconoclastic commentary — the kind of outspokenness that caused him problems at ESPN.
But the truly fascinating thing about the deal is what Simmons does for HBO. It is a major step in the evolution of the premium cable channel that may foreshadow greater changes in television. The network that made its name by disowning television — with the famous slogan "It's not TV. It's HBO" — now seems intent on dominating every aspect of it.
The Simmons deal is just the latest step in HBO's ongoing and aggressive expansion. Earlier this year, shortly after renewing Last Week Tonight with John Oliver through 2017, the network announced a four-year "content pact" with Vice, which includes an upcoming daily half-hour newscast. It's been more than 15 years after Sex and the City, The Sopranos, and other revered fictional series established HBO as serious challenger to the dramas of broadcast and basic cable networks, and HBO has now set its sights on nonfiction, going head-to-head with entrenched competitors like Comedy Central, ESPN, and CNN.
The transformation of HBO reflects an industry-wide revolution so rapid that the very term "television" seems like an anachronism. With the launch of the streaming service HBO Now in April, the network joined the ranks of Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and others in bypassing cable companies to reach "cord-cutting" consumers directly. The explosion of competing options has forced these outlets to pursue increasingly diverse programming slates, from Simmons' weekly HBO series and Chelsea Handler's forthcoming Netflix talk show, to variety specials, documentaries, and nostalgic revivals.
But in a crowded field, HBO is the leading indicator of the future, if only because of the significant advantage it enjoys in the size of its entertainment footprint. HBO and its sister station, Cinemax, which are owned by Time Warner, count approximately 122 million subscribers worldwide, against Netflix's 62 million. Moreover, by straddling the worlds of streaming and cable, with a reputation cultivated over the course of decades instead of years, HBO offers a practical example of how both the old guard and the new can cut a path forward. Broadcast and cable have been slow to adapt to technological changes since the introduction of the DVR, and many streaming leaders have yet to develop distinct brand identities. HBO, alone, has proven itself both nimble and reliable.
If that's the business end, what does this mean for the average TV viewer? Maybe everything. The flux in production and distribution created the conditions for the so-called "golden age of television," and every network is trying to discover how to benefit. The convergence is already upon us. Broadcast networks experiment with standalone subscriptions (CBS All-Access) and binge-watching (NBC's Aquarius). Basic cable and streaming encroach on the premium channels' former command of critics' lists and the Emmy nominations. Showtime airs a series named after 60 Minutes. And HBO prepares to roll out its version of the nightly news. The snake has begun to eat its own long tail.
Where will it stop? In the end, no one has both the time and the money to stay abreast of more than 350 scripted series, as well as countless news, commentary, sports, talk, and variety programs. And that's not even to mention competing entertainments that come in the form of movies, books, websites, and social media. Culture produces itself faster than we can consume it, and so we once again face the tyranny of choice. The question quickly becomes: Which series — and by extension, which channels — are indispensable?
Subscription-based services understand these constraints, and as a consequence, these companies have tended to focus on niche programming. With advertising largely excised from the equation, a series that wins over enough new subscribers (or proves important to keeping current ones) is prized. The danger, of course, is that you subscribe to HBO to see Looking and Enlightened and end up with Ballers, True Detective, and The Brink. The sense of freedom that accompanies cord-cutting is an illusion: to put it bluntly, if you are paying for television, you are, by definition, paying for television you don't watch.
That's why HBO's partnerships with John Oliver, Bill Simmons, and Vice Media are emblematic of an effort on the part of all providers to rewrite the terms of the agreement between viewer and network. In order to appeal to consumers with limited means and unlimited choices, HBO and its competitors can no longer offer a potential subscriber one or two must-see series. Rather, these companies must become one of the two or three multifaceted, highly integrated platforms on which the viewer of the future will encounter the vast majority of his or her information and entertainment.
If, as The Awl's John Hermann argues, "the next Internet is TV," then subscription-based streaming services are the next Facebook. The future of HBO — with its existing audience, relationship with Time Warner, reputation for quality, and ability to attract high-caliber talent — is as likely a litmus test of this phenomenon as any. If its new strategy works, the network might consider inaugurating a new slogan: "HBO, the only TV you'll ever need."