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HBO Cuts Cable; Will AMC, Showtime Follow?

When Netflix Instant premiered, the common critique was that the video-streaming service had only a smattering of content. But a funny thing happened: Instead of looking for the best way to get a specific movie or TV show, viewers were so drawn to the ease of streaming that they simply binged on whatever Netflix could offer. 

With today's (Oct. 15) announcement from parent company Time Warner that HBO will offer an online-only package in 2015, the mere convenience of getting Game of Thrones online might be enough to overshadow the desire to watch Homeland on Showtime if the channel continues to require a cable subscription.

MORE: Your Guide to Cable TV Cord-Cutting

It's a new twist on channel surfing. Instead of watching the first thing that looks good as you scan the cable channels, you watch the first thing that looks good on your Roku or smart TV.

How good will HBO online be?

It's a bit early to know if an online-only version of HBO will be the killer app for cord cutters. Price, for example, is up in the air, as is whether all shows will be available — and at the same time they appear on cable. But today's announcement by Richard Plepler, chairman and CEO of HBO, at a Time Warner investor meeting looks promising. Stating that there are already 10 million broadband-only households in the US, Plepler said, "That is a large and growing opportunity that should no longer be left untapped.  It is time to remove all barriers to those who want HBO."

What price is a barrier? Cable providers are offering stripped-down basic-channel packages with HBO bundled in, for as little as about $40 per month (in the first year, at least). If that's still too much (and it is a lot if all you want is HBO), an online offering will have to be less. Could it be as little as $8 or $9, about what Netflix, Amazon and Hulu cost? How much higher could it go? Research companies we spoke to estimate that Netflix could probably up its monthly fee to $15 per month and keep most of its customers. But Netflix offers a lot more than a few series per year, and Amazon already offers HBO's back catalog (most shows up to about three years ago) as part of its $99 per year Amazon Prime membership.

Online subscription fatigue 

If people cut cable to get HBO, they'll be losing (legal) access to the current seasons of programs from rivals such as AMC (Mad Men, The Walking Dead) and Showtime (Gigolos, Homeland).

And if (or more likely, when) these other channels offer online-only packages, will it be too late? If you're already paying $9 per month for Netflix, $99 per year for Amazon, and say - wild guess - $12 per month for HBO, how inclined will you be wiling to pay yet more for Showtime streaming? At a certain point, streaming starts to cost as much or more than cable, and you're right back to where you started. If you do pony up for an HBO online subscription, you may find yourself developing a bigger interest in Boardwalk Empire and Girls than you might have otherwise. And you can wait on Homeland until it's on Netflix - which so far it isn't, so perhaps you skip it entirely. 

This won't be the case for die-hard fans of shows outside of HBO, but it might keep more people from tuning in (or logging on) to become fans. Besides, Netflix already has more of its own original programs than most people can keep up with. If you can't watch everything anyway, why not just watch what's easiest to get?

Senior editor Sean Captain never misses an episode of Game of Thrones. Follow him @seancaptain. Follow us @tomsguide, on Facebook and on Google+.