I spent way too much time yesterday figuring out how to get HBO Max, the new streaming service that asks, “What if we took everything HBO already has and added a random grab bag of WarnerMedia-owned (Friends, Big Bang Theory) or licensed (Doctor Who, Studio Ghibli) content?” Turns out, I already had it. Since I subscribe to HBO through Hulu, my HBO Now account was automatically upgraded to HBO Max for no additional charge. Also, since I use AT&T as my internet provider, I’m entitled to a free HBO Max subscription should I need or want it. I’ve got options, is what I’m saying. Others who have HBO Now are also eligible for the upgrade but not always.
Also, HBO Max is only available in North America and will prioritize Latin America and Europe for its first international expansions, which won’t happen until 20201.
Also, it’s not currently available to stream on either Roku or Amazon, whose various Roku TV and Fire TV devices account for around 70% of the digital home media marketplace, which seems like a pretty significant market share to ignore.
Also, as a last-minute surprise, HBO Max added all 8 Harry Potter movies to its catalog, buying NBCUniversal out of the lucrative streaming contract it had signed with Warner Bros. for the franchise.
Wait till I try to explain why a new streaming service called HBO Max has HBO, TNT, TCM, BBC, Cartoon Network, AdultSwim, TBS, Warner Bros, Studio Ghibli, and original programming but nothing from long-standing corporate sibling Cinemax? So, if the “Max” part of “HBO Max” doesn’t refer to Cinemax then what does it actually mean? Say, this isn’t just some empty-headed, 90s marketing phrase, is it?
This feels like a good time to weigh in on the current state of the streaming wars and report back on what HBO Max is like.
A Streaming War With Only One Real Streamer
With large swaths of society in lockdown and nearly all out-of-home entertainment options (viva la drive-in theater!) temporarily shuttered, now would seem like the perfect time to launch a new streaming service. The demand has never been higher! None of the companies planned it this way, of course, and several of them at least contemplated putting planned launches on hold. Alas, the long-promised 2020 streaming wars have marched on largely as scheduled.
So, in the time since the pandemic started, Disney+ expanded into select European countries and India, short-form content specialty streamer Quibi launched to middling returns and swift budget cuts, NBCUniversal’s ad-supported service Peacock rolled out to Comcast subscribers only, and as of yesterday, AT&T’s Frankenstein’s monster of WarnerMedia content known as HBO Max is finally here. All of this in the same year where Netflix passed Disney on the stock market.
Future, thy name be streaming. Clearly. In the here and now, though, consumers are challenged to navigate the increasingly murky streaming landscape, particularly with everyone likely looking for ways to save money, not add new costs, such as yet another streaming subscription.
To help cut through the confusion and cost anxiety while also inflating their global sub numbers, Disney struck various deals to offer Disney+ for free to Verizon and Hotstar customers. Apple did something similar with its Apple TV Plus launch last November, automatically offering a year-long subscription to anyone who had recently bought or upgraded an iPhone or iPad. Go back even further and you’ll remember Amazon Prime Video, one of the earliest Netflix competitors, existed for years solely as an automatic, often unused bonus for Amazon Prime subscribers. It wasn’t until 2016 that you could directly subscribe to the streaming service.
The “let’s introduce it as a bonus for current customers” trend has continued this year with Peacock debuting as a free add-on for Comcast subscribers and HBOMax rolling out as a simple automatic update for many (though not all) pre-existing HBONow subscribers as well as those who get their internet through AT&T.
As telecom companies, Comcast and AT&T each have a rooting interest in not allowing the streaming wars to completely kneecap their core businesses. Amazon and Apple are each similarly using streaming as a loss leader. In the so-called streaming wars, when it comes to the major players – which in North America means Netflix, Amazon, Apple, Disney/Hulu, and HBO – there’s only one genuine and true streaming company and that’s Netflix, which has no corporate parent and exists solely to create and distribute content. That’s why analyst Matthew Ball argued we should stop using the phrase “streaming wars” since this is more like a battle in a larger war:
When the future of the world looked like picking from two dozen Netflixes, it made sense the average household would settle on only a few. But most consumers won’t need to make that choice. At least 70MM US homes have Amazon Prime, so they get Prime Video. Today, 200MM iOS devices are sold per year in the United States, so at least 75MM homes will get Apple TV+ Originals. Tens of millions of AT&T households will get HBO Max for free, as will tens of millions of Verizon Wireless customers receive Disney+ or Quibi while Comcast customers will get Peacock.
The “Streaming Wars” are really just a single battle in the “ecosystem wars”, which, in most cases, is fought asymmetrically. Unlike Amazon, Apple isn’t an e-retailer, nor is it an enterprise cloud services provider. But the two companies offer similar video services with similar monetization models. Netflix is in the crossfire of this ecosystem war and will need to excel through specialization and a first-mover advantage to be sustainable. But for the rest, the “war” is mostly won through synergies and monetization elsewhere.
The true next wave in the battle will be what happens when the free rides expire. Will iPhone users enjoying their sweet, free Apple TV Plus hook-up pay for it once their year is up? If you change internet providers and thus lose your AT&T HBO Max bonus, will you subscribe to the service directly? What kind of churn will these services see and how much of it will be tolerated by their corporate overlords?
From a consumer perspective, the content will likely drive all decisions, as in, which of the streaming services have the shows and movies you can’t live without?
So Much For Those Buzzy Launch Titles
This is where launching in the middle of a pandemic throws all of your plans into chaos. Comcast, for example, spent months planning to launch Peacock alongside the Summer Olympics, making it an indispensable part of the sports coverage and hopefully hooking millions of new customers who signed up to watch live Olympics events and stuck around for 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation. Last we heard, though, the Summer Olympics have not only been delayed a full year, they might not even happen at all if there isn’t a vaccine by then.
Sure, Peacock also has plenty of originals either in development (like Sam Esmail’s Battlestar Galactica reboot) or filmed and on the way (like a Saved By the Bell sequel series due in July), but Comcast’s original marketing plan has been completely shot to shit.
HBO Max suffered a similar, though nowhere near as consequential setback when it had to postpone its much-hyped Friends cast reunion. The original plan was for the service to loudly announce its status as the new, exclusive streaming home for every Friends episode by throwing millions at the original cast and creators to return and presumably sit on a big ass couch to answer a moderator’s softball questions. (Please let that moderator be Gunther.) Post-Wuhan, reunions like that happen every week via Zoom conversations streamed on YouTube. (Here’s one with the cast of Star Trek: Voyager). For the Friends reunion, however, it’s either all of them in a room together or nothing, and until the world allows such things to happen again, HBO Max will be without its trump card.
The workaround: announce the exclusive release of the fabled Snyder cut of Justice League even though you don’t know when it will be done (sometime in 2021), how it will be distributed (possibly as a mini-series, maybe one long movie), and before Zack Snyder has even started any major work on it. Sure, that’s a lot of uncertainty, but it at least gets people talking. When they do, maybe they’ll remember, “Where can I watch the Snyder cut? Oh, yeah, HBO Max.” (Or they’ll just pirate it.)
Quibi would kill for that kind of IP. Unlike the competition, Quibi – partially the brainchild of Jeffrey Katzenberg and funded with billions of investor seed money – debuted with absolutely no library content. Everything on there is an original made specifically for the streaming service. Given that lack of IP, the early conversation around the streamer was more about how to watch than what to watch:
The service is only available to use on your phone, everything was filmed in multiple ratios so that the video can seamlessly switch from portrait to landscape view, and no episode lasts longer than a couple of moments. It’s all a bunch of quick bites (thus Quibi) for the on-the-go Millennial and otherwise, something to watch on the train or on lunch break at the office.
So, in other words, the absolute wrong business model to try out during a pandemic which has pushed unemployment figures to Great Depression levels.
Give Me the Originals!
There’s nothing quite like a killer original to separate a new streaming service from the competition. Given the uncertainties over when film and TV production will continue, however, none of these services likely have a Mandalorian-like draw or Morning Show-like conversation starter in the offing anytime soon, or if they do, as with Apple TV’s steady stream of new programming (Amazing Stories, Defending Jacob, Trying, Central Park), the well will eventually run dry.
HBO Max, for example, launched with a tepid Anne Kendrick anthology series (Love Life), Elmo-hosted talk show (The Not Too Late Show With Elmo), new Looney Tunes cartoons, a couple of competition reality shows (Craftopia, Legendary), and #MeToo documentary On the Record. At some point down the road, the service will exclusively host The Flight Attendant, Kaley Cuoco’s first live-action show since Big Bang Theory. Next month, it will share the second season of Doom Patrol with DC Universe. The service will also share all of HBO’s highly anticipated originals (Lovecraft Country!), which will continue to be made available to any HBO subscribers who don’t want or are unable to upgrade to HBO Max.
Ok, Well, Show Me the Library!
Given HBO Max’s relatively light slate of originals at the moment, its primary draw is an impressively diverse catalog that runs the gamut from Nanook of the North to Joker and Looney Tunes to Rick and Morty. There’s enough in there that Big Picture podcast co-host Sean Fennessey’s mind was completely blown:
Adopting the Disney+ model of self-organizing around different brands/content silos (Star Wars, Marvel, Pixar, Nat Geo), HBO Max breaks down into different hubs:
That looks great in theory, but once you go digging you’ll find a lot of unexplained holes. The DC hub, for example, doesn’t contain a single Superman movie or TV show, none of the Christopher Nolan Batman movies, and only one DC Universe series, Doom Patrol.
Elsewhere, you’ll find every installment of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings but only two of the Hobbit movies (yes to Unexpected Journey and Battle of Five Armies, no to Desolation of Smaug). The Studio Ghibli hub is missing Grave of the Fireflies. Horror franchises like Alien, Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street are presented but incomplete. The TCM hub has classics from every era but almost nothing comprehensive and no hint of the invaluable curation from the beloved Filmstruck streaming service that AT&T shuttered after buying Time Warner.
Those kinds of odd content holes and gaps are part of the streaming game at this point. A corporation like WarnerMedia launching its own streaming service can’t always lead with its best foot because it has countless pre-existing contracts to honor, which is why some WB movies are on Netflix and elsewhere and not on HBO Max. DC Universe has had this same problem from day one, promising a comprehensive back catalog while in fact offering a light sampling of all the DC movies and TV shows not already under exclusive streaming contract elsewhere
On the TV side, the HBO Max AdultSwim hub has Rick and Morty but not the most recent season. (For that, you’ll need either Hulu or some kind of cable subscription that has AdultSwim.) In fact, HBO Max only carries 9 AdultSwim shows total, barely scratching the surface of a deep catalog. Beyond that, where do old shows like Friends, Big Bang Theory, and Fresh Prince of Bel Aire fit into those hubs?
Basically, it all feels aggressively random, which is probably the inevitable result of a telecom company like AT&T gobbling up a legacy Hollywood studio and deciding to build a streaming service around its diverse, disparate assets. Putting HBO into the name just confuses things more, but is rather instructive. HBO Max, after all, is just HBO on steroids and with reduced quality control.
HBO Max is HBO with more old films (did I mention the 10+ Godzilla movies?) and TV shows to watch. I don’t know that such a service really qualifies as the Netflix killer AT&T probably wants it to be, even if HBO Max, thanks to Friends, does have one of Netflix’s former crown jewels. Still, if you are in a position to subscribe to HBO Max it won’t be your new home for all things DC nor will it have everything you wish it could, but as with everything else in the streaming wars, you will absolutely not lack for good things to watch.