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Amazon plays a great hand with HBO but game isn't over

Amazon will be the first subscription service to offer binge-ready, older HBO shows, besting Netflix by scoring coveted content for members. But this deal doesn't win the game, or change it yet.

HBO's "Boardwalk Empire" HBO

With a narrow view of history, you could call Amazon's HBO deal historic.

After all, the agreement, announced Wednesday, gives members of Amazon's $99-a-year Prime program a back catalog of coveted HBO shows -- the first time they've been made available for an outside streaming service.

And make no mistake, this is a big win for Amazon against Netflix, its chief streaming rival, and should delight a swath of faithful Amazon customers. HBO's programming is some of the most popular and praised in the world, with the network yearly garnering more Emmy nominations than any other and its shows frequently among the most purchased ( and pirated) online. The pact spans several years, so more content will become available as it progresses, and HBO has never before licensed so much bingeable programming to people who don't pay for HBO itself through a cable or satellite company.

But it's not a revolutionary deal -- it follows the same subscription video licensing mold of many agreements that have come before it. And the byzantine system of video licensing means some consumers may be confused about what is new here, and what is missing.

CBS's "Under the Dome" CBS

Most subscription video licensing arrangements, the HBO-Amazon deal included, exclude very recent content and instead offer access to series already off the air, or old seasons of current programs. But there is a precedent of a media company compromising on how long that lag must be, to great success: Amazon's agreement with CBS for its summer sci-fi hit "Under the Dome."

With CBS, Amazon invested in the show up front in exchange for exclusive rights to stream it through its Prime Instant Video service just four days after each episode broadcast. CBS was able to make the show with unusually high standards for a summer program -- big special effects, expensive sets, a large cast -- and the company benefitted not only from high ratings during the broadcast but also extra revenue from Amazon and international licensing. For Amazon, "Under the Dome" turned out to be one of the most-watched shows on Prime. (Disclosure: CNET is owned by CBS.)

Still a pipe dream
A similar HBO pact would be a revolutionary, not just for Amazon but for the business of television. It would make the most die-hard cord cutters happy, for sure. Cord cutters, or people who have forsaken a pay-TV service like cable for online video alternatives like Netflix, have long salivated over HBO's online video-on-demand service HBO Go, which is a trove of content online as soon as it airs.

But HBO hasn't -- and likely won't soon -- make HBO Go or its newest, hottest content available to anyone other than people who pay for HBO on cable or satellite.

Parent company Time Warner still makes the vast majority of HBO revenue from pay-TV subscriptions. In 2013, HBO subscriptions generated $4.2 billion dollars for Time Warner; HBO content sales -- like licensing deals and pay-to-play purchases -- were $658 million. And Time Warner Chief Executive Jeffrey L. Bewkes has said the company's focus would be on people who pay for TV rather than those who don't.

Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes Shara Tibken/CNET

"You often hear that question about 'over-the-top' as though the real opportunity are the people that have broadband but not TV," he said at a Goldman Sachs media conference in September. "Where do you think the likely next subscriber is? Is it the 70 million homes that have bought 200 channels of stuff and they haven't bought HBO? Or is it the 5 million or 10 million that didn't buy either HBO or that?"

"It's pretty obvious, it's the 70 million up. So we're working more on that."

Amazon shares were recently down 1.4 percent, or $4.65, at $324.67. Time Warner shares were up 1.5 percent, or 99 cents, at $65.91.

Amazon's agreement with HBO is a small step in the direction of that cord-cutter ideal, though. HBO has never before granted unlimited streaming access to its programming -- albeit older programming -- through a subscription service unless that subscription was to HBO itself.

What Amazon Prime users get
The complications of TV licensing mean Amazon's pact with HBO has confused some consumers about what is included, what is missing, and what is new. So let's try to lay it out.

The Amazon Prime deal includes many past HBO series in its back catalog, like "The Sopranos," "Deadwood," and "The Wire." It also includes earlier seasons of series that are still airing this year, like "Boardwalk Empire" and "True Blood" (both shows are due to end with their upcoming seasons). As time goes by, older seasons of current shows like "Girls" and "The Newsroom" will become available about three years after they air. So, for example, because the first season of "Girls" aired from April to June 2012, it should be available on Prime next year.

HBO's "Game of Thrones" HBO

However, Amazon Prime won't have "Game of Thrones," at least not under this agreement. Nor will it be able to offer "True Detectives." Neither is mentioned in Amazon's press release, and both are huge hits for HBO, which is keeping them firmly behind its moat.

Amazon declined to elaborate further on the pact and what is included, but you can scan its press release to check if your favorite series is mentioned.

HBO has made its programming available online via pay-to-play businesses run by Apple's iTunes and Amazon. Amazon's pay-to-play Amazon Instant Video service is different from Prime Instant Video, which is an unlimited subscription.

Despite the deal with Amazon, if you want to watch the latest episodes of HBO's most popular programs, you'll have to keep the cord and pay for TV. Or, considering HBO CEO Richard Plepler's lax philosophy about password sharing, just find a generous friend who does.