It was recently announced that HBO would be getting a cheaper Ad-supported tier, presumably because AT&T needs to make more money so their shareholders don’t eat them alive for simply maintaining a 224 Billion dollar business and wringing money out of every property they have (which includes HBO) is one way to do that. It will be $9.99 per month (remember when Netflix was $10/month?) for the full catalog (minus same-day theatrical releases) if you’re willing to put up with ads and it will be here in June.
Sorry, I got distracted. I’m having a hard time composing my thoughts on this because in a very real way, this is ruining one of America’s only remaining sources of information that is unfettered by ad money and nobody seems to really be talking about it.
Allow me to explain. Almost all of the news media in this country is funded using advertising. Even PBS has commercials now. This isn’t a new thing, it was like this with newspapers too. There are a few major problems with this, some more obvious than others.
Before I dive into any of that, though, it’s important to remember that there is a lot more on HBO besides Game of Thrones and Veep. They produce very important non-fiction work as well. That ranges from things like in-depth investigative documentaries like “Q: Into the Storm,” which documents the background and real-world repercussions of the QAnon conspiracy theory, to John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight,” to the Axios news program that they produce.
For one, having sponsors means that you’re pretty much precluded from being able to do any meaningful reporting that reflects poorly on said sponsors. For example, if you want to talk about how Gap, Inc. somehow keeps having issues with child labor and other unsafe labor practices once every decade or so, they probably won’t want to have ads on during your program. A great news organization might decide to proceed anyway and take the risk of not getting Gap ads on their show or website anymore, but an editor who themselves or is instructed by the people above them to focus on the business side of things than the news side of things, might kill the story to keep revenue up. This isn’t just some hypothetical, this sort of thing definitely happens. Whether they’re killing a story to protect their founder or the Chinese government, or it’s direct advertising partners, it’s a problem you don’t have when you aren’t funded by advertising dollars.
Another major problem that is definitely not just an HBO issue to save us from, is that, again due to how advertising works, and the eroding separation of Church and State, has led to editors prioritizing things that will attract more eyeballs. Often that means is a prioritization of lower-quality, lower-effort journalism that is simply there to drive ratings. Conversely, a story or guest might be dropped when the topic is likely to be low-rating even if it is a super important subject. Just so everyone is keeping up; eyeballs=ratings=ad dollars. In a world where an outlet isn’t relying ratings to determine their coverage, they’re more likely to cover things that are important, even if they wouldn’t drive big numbers. That, combined with the drastic decline in local newspapers has led to local officials not being held accountable when they really need to be.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but Donald Trump got a metric fuck ton of free TV coverage from the news outlets in 2016 because it drove their ratings. He’s a clown and people like watching clowns, it’s why we go to the circus. Because he received so much airtime, he was naturally considered by voters to be a more serious contender in the primary and then he won. And then he became the president. Of a country. This country. To quote Leslie Moonves, then CEO of CBS, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.“
A lot of what I’m talking about can be easily summed up by watching this clip from Some More News and I may have borrowed a few of their sources to complete my work. I recommend you check out the whole thing, but the last 10 minutes or so do a good job of outlining this problem:
It’s entirely possible I’m being alarmist and this new ad-supported tier won’t do anything to affect HBO’s ability to create high-quality content that speaks truth to power. This will really only add to the big stack of money that they have and as the CEO of WarnerMedia, Jason Kilar, said talking when about adding this new tier, “most people on this planet are not wealthy” and to his credit, that is true, and it would be a good thing if more people gain access to the high-quality content that they produce as long as it doesn’t actually affect that quality to add commercial breaks. I guess it remains to be seen.