So far, Game of Thrones is beating Mad Men in the ratings war. The second episode of the fantasy epic based on author George R.R. Martin's "A Song of Fire and Ice" books drew in 4.3 million viewers, versus 3.4 million for the Mad Men premiere.
As far as I'm concerned, both shows are well written and worth watching. Yet if HBO were spun off from Time Warner (NYSE: TWX ) as an independent company, I'd still rather own shares of Mad Men distributor AMC Networks (NASDAQ: AMCX ) .
Why? Accessibility. By bundling its content with cable providers, HBO makes it unnecessarily difficult to cater to the increasing number of viewers who are just as comfortable watching via tablet as they are on TV.
Consider how Comcast's obtuse Xfinity service handles streamed HBO content. Watching on my Mac requires a log-in to comcast.net and then navigating to a "watch TV" tab, where I can look up episodes and movies. Once I've done that, starting or picking up an episode works great -- just so long as I haven't changed devices. The Comcast Web experience is self-contained.
So is the iPad experience, where HBO GO is available. Logging in there with my Comcast credentials gets access to episodes but no viewing history, making it a poor substitute for Netflix (NASDAQ: NFLX ) and Apple's (NASDAQ: AAPL ) iTunes, both of which bookmark video content across devices.
But where Xfinity really fails is in the living room. Prior seasons of Game of Thrones simply aren't available through Xfinity On Demand. Interested catch-up viewers are instead pushed to the Web to experience Comcast's streaming weaknesses live and in living color.
Meanwhile, synchronized viewing is only going to get more important. According to IDC, tablets are on track to outsell desktop PCs this year and will outsell laptops come 2014. Hundreds of millions of mini-TVs are out in the wild, waiting to be fed. Hundreds of millions more are coming.
Separately, a recent survey conducted by Belkin and Harris Interactive found that roughly 30% of viewers surveyed said they were at least somewhat interested in replacing traditional cable with digital services such as Netflix. It's a good bet a number of these rule-breaking TV fans already are, or are about to be, tablet owners.
Liberty Media's (NASDAQ: LMCA ) John Malone, a cable industry insider, may have said it best when he questioned the long-term veracity of cable network efforts to bundle content in order to preserve profits.
Cable network operators "have to face reality that maybe you need to segregate your market like everybody else," Malone said in an interview with CNBC's David Faber.
Malone is right: Bundling doesn't make sense anymore. Time Warner is only limiting HBO's options -- and devaluing its content -- by sticking with the dinosaurs that insist upon it.
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