HBO has built a robust and popular online presence over the past couple of years with its app, HBO GO. But to get it — as is the case with many streaming services that offer television over the Internet — you've needed a cable subscription. In other words, HBO GO was an add-on for people who already had HBO, not an alternative way of getting shows for people who didn't. (Although it should be noted: Wide sharing of HBO GO logins with friends and family who don't have HBO has been an open secret that the network hasn't appeared to care about, particularly.)
But today, HBO Chairman and CEO Richard Plepler announced the news that fans of the network's programming but not of cable packages have been waiting to hear: Beginning in 2015, HBO will offer a streaming service to cord-cutters and other nonsubscribers on an a la carte basis. It should be noted that the announcement HBO released to the media does not explicitly say the service will be HBO GO (or that it won't), only that it will be "a stand-alone, over-the-top, HBO service." And, of course, it doesn't say how much the service will cost. It doesn't even say it will carry every HBO show, let alone what archival material will be available — HBO GO has a lot. Those who are currently jumping up and down and declaring their independence from their cable provider may or may not be as happy when more details emerge.
The move, though, would seem to be a big one, given that requiring a cable subscription is standard on many services besides HBO that provide streaming access to cable programming (without requiring episode-by-episode purchase through services like iTunes or Amazon). The announcement says HBO will "work with our current partners" and "explore models with new partners," but it seems inevitable that an arrangement like this will unsettle cable providers who have been able to use legitimate access to premium networks like HBO as one of the remaining barriers against cord-cutting, the practice of declining to have a cable subscription in favor of watching online. (Others remain, including live sports broadcasts on cable.)
Many observers have expected an eventual full or partial decoupling of premium programming — and perhaps all programming — from the cable television subscription model beyond what has already happened (remember, Emmy nominations are now going to shows like Netflix's Orange Is the New Black and House of Cards, which are television shows that never aired on either broadcast or cable television). How large a step in that direction the HBO service will represent remains to be seen, but some version of a service people have been demanding for a very long time is in the near, and increasingly complex, future.