When Amazon (AMZN) released Fire TV earlier this month, it was easy to be underwhelmed. Physically, it didn’t look much different than Apple TV (AAPL) or Roku, and it lacked one of their best features: the ability to watch HBO (TWX). While the device still looks a lot like its competitors, Amazon has just leapfrogged the field on the HBO front. The company said on Wednesday that it will offer not only the HBO Go app on Fire TV, but also give Amazon Prime subscribers the ability to watch some HBO shows free.
Don’t get too excited, True Detective fans. Shows will be added to Prime’s free streaming service about three years after they air. For now, viewers can re-live the joys of The Sopranos, The Wire, and Six Feet Under, with more shows to come over the course of the partnership. The first batch will be made available on May 21st. In addition, HBO will have an app ready for Fire TV by the end of the year.
The race among Internet television services is measured largely by what you can watch on them. Before dropping its HBO bombshell, Amazon’s primary distinction was its increased focus on video games. But it has also been producing its own shows and grabbing further exclusives for Prime subscribers. Amazon is competing in two areas here: It wants people to buy Fire TVs, rather than Rokus, and for viewers to value Prime more than Netflix (NFLX). The HBO deal puts Amazon ahead of Internet TV companies that make devices, and it constitutes the company’s first big coup as it tries to distinguish itself from Netflix, which doesn’t offer any of HBO’s current content. Still, Amazon is still far behind Netflix on streaming selection, as this clever analysis by Lifehacker shows.
For Internet TV companies, HBO has become something of a holy grail. Aside from big-time sports, the service is often cited (including by me) as the lure that keeps people from abandoning cable in significant numbers. HBO’s deal with Amazon, its first with a streaming subscription service, is carefully designed not to undercut its lucrative cable business. While terms weren’t disclosed, HBO has undoubtedly just opened up a nice way to make money from old shows. The deal is exclusive and lasts for multiple years, according to Amazon. While HBO is moving slowly enough to exasperate some fans, it seems to be positioning itself to prosper in the age of Internet television. All it has to do is figure out how to run a streaming service that breaks down less than twice a month.