Lessons From HBO Max’s First Year

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo by HBO Max

It’s been a year for HBO Max, both literally and figuratively: The platform turns one year old today, and the last 12 months have been, well … eventful. Debuting amid a global pandemic was never going to be easy, but Max lived up to its moniker by producing the maximum amount of drama. There was that early and very confusing nonsense over the naming of various HBO products; an uninspired launch marketing campaign; COVID-related delays of tentpole shows such as The Flight Attendant and Gossip Girl; and the nasty battle with Roku and Amazon that kept the app unavailable to millions of potential subscribers for months. As if all that weren’t enough, the behind-the-scenes C-suite drama was like a scene out of Succession, culminating a few weeks ago with AT&T deciding to basically sell Max parent company WarnerMedia to Discovery Networks and exit the streaming business altogether.

Like I said, it’s been a year.

And yet for all the behind-the-scenes tsuris, HBO Max is actually doing pretty damn well. I don’t even think it’s a stretch to call it a significant success on multiple fronts:

• Strong subscriber growth: The supersize version of HBO currently boasts 44.2 million U.S. subscribers, a huge 35 percent jump from the roughly 33 million Classic HBO had a year ago. Throw in international subscribers and the number rises to nearly 64 million. While that’s fewer than the roughly 87 million global subscribers Disney+ had by the end of its first year (or its current tally of 104 million), Max also costs nearly twice as much on average. Plus, after just one year, Max already has a bigger subscriber base than the far less expensive Hulu and has reached about two-thirds the North American subscriber base of Netflix (74 million.) Growth may slow a bit in the short term as global audiences get back out into a post-COVID-vaccine world, but the year-one trajectory for Max has been impressive.

Sterling original content: While WarnerMedia has allowed HBO and HBO Max to maintain separate development teams, both are overseen by HBO vet Casey Bloys and, more importantly, audiences don’t care what label is attached to a program (see also: FX on Hulu). So when assessing the strength of HBO Max, it makes no sense to distinguish between the two brands. By that standard, HBO Max’s slate, while not as bountiful as Netflix’s, has more than made up for it in terms of quality, attracting strong buzz and frequent critical acclaim for a long line of programs launched over past year: The Flight Attendant, Lovecraft Country, Hacks, Mare of Easttown, It’s a Sin, I May Destroy YouPerry Mason, Tina, and, yes, The Undoing. Plus, as the post-pandemic production pipeline heats up, Max’s roster will grow stronger still, benefiting from the return of some HBO tentpoles such as Succession, Curb Your Enthusiasm, BarryInsecureWestworld, and Euphoria. And next year, Max gets what could be its biggest weapon yet in the fight for subscribers: the Game of Thrones spinoff series House of the Dragon.

The strongest library: Max has assembled the best collection of quality retro content of any other major streamer — period. While you can make a case Hulu has a wider assortment of old-school network TV shows — as well as a few gems from FX — Max houses virtually the entire HBO series catalogue and a deep selection of classic movies from the Warner Bros. and pre-1980s MGM vaults, including ones filmed in honest-to-goodness black-and-white. (Netflix, by contrast, seems to consider anything made more than 15 years ago a “classic.” )

A brilliant same-day movie-premiere strategy: Jason Kilar, WarnerMedia’s CEO (for now), got a ton of pushback from old Hollywood over his decision to have all Warner Bros. 2021 theatricals stream the same day they hit theaters. But the move instantly made Max competitive with Netflix in the big-budget feature-film space, while also giving the service a massive subscriber-acquisition tool. Perhaps just as importantly, because these new releases aren’t on the HBO cable service, the same-day premieres inspired a ton of linear HBO users to finally activate the Max subscriptions included with their pay TV package. That will prove to be beneficial long after the simultaneous premieres go away next year.

Obviously not everything has gone right for Max during its first year. I think the damage from the early stumbles surrounding HBO Go vs. Now vs. Max has been way overblown, but it absolutely was a marketing disaster. What should have been a clear message — HBO just added a ton of additional programming and it won’t cost consumers a penny more — was obscured by the ridiculousness of the naming structure. Similarly, it doesn’t really matter that WarnerMedia and AT&T probably had good reasons to fight Amazon and Roku on the terms of the Max distribution agreement. Not having the app on those major platforms slowed early momentum.

There are also still some more headaches ahead for Max, at least in the near term. No matter what the eventual benefits of the Discovery merger, until everything gets sorted out — and it could take six months to a year for the deal to get approved — everyone at Max and WarnerMedia will be operating under a cloud. Top programmer Casey Bloys should be safe, but David Zaslav didn’t engineer this merger to simply let the status quo continue. Uncertainty is never a good thing in business, but that’s exactly what Max staffers face in the months ahead. It’s hardly a disaster, but it’s not ideal.

Eventually, however, having Discovery Networks in the same family will be a massive win for Max. Zaslav has said he doesn’t know whether Discovery+ and HBO Max will be combined, but I have to imagine Max will get a massive infusion of new unscripted content from its soon-to-be sibling. And that’s a really big deal, since currently, the platform’s biggest weakness is in the reality-TV genre. While HBO’s storied documentary unit means the service is well-stocked on the doc front, both in terms of library content and future originals, Max is behind Netflix, Hulu, and arguably even Peacock when it comes to docuseries and competition reality. It simply doesn’t have that many big tentpole titles, old or new (and even the platform’s biggest franchise, The Bachelor, isn’t exclusive). That should change quickly once Discovery and Max share a parent.

Max will get another big boost next week with the rollout of the ad-supported version of HBO Max. Even if Max with ads won’t be dramatically cheaper — $10 per month versus $15 — that savings could be enough to spur a decent number of fence-sitters to sign up for the service, while also potentially reducing subscriber churn. Similarly, the continued international rollout of Max will also help add new subscribers: The platform hits Latin America at the end of June.

The final bit of good news on the Max front is that, despite the justified fears of some members of the HBO old guard (almost none of whom are still with the company), I don’t think the HBO brand has suffered from being attached to the new platform. It helps that the original content being made under the HBO Max banner isn’t dramatically different from what gets an “HBO” tag: Hacks and even The Flight Attendant are no less high quality than many HBO originals (and if your metric is Entourage or The Nevers, they’re probably better).

Perhaps the worries about the fate of the HBO brand will prove justified once Zaslav moves in and decides to green-light a Barry spinoff called 90-Day Hitman. But 365 days into the Max era of HBO, the only thing that has really changed about TV’s oldest pay TV platform is that it has more subscribers than ever. Sounds like a win to me.

How I Learned to Love the Friends Reunion Special

Speaking of HBO Max, the service is marking its birthday today by finally streaming its long-teased Friends reunion, which was supposed to help kick off the service but got pushed back a year because of the pandemic. I’ll be honest: Ever since rumors leaked out the streamer planned to pay the cast of Friends as much as $4 million each for what seemed to me to be nothing more than an interview special, I’ve been sort of cranky about the whole thing. Spending so much money on something that wasn’t even an actual, scripted reunion episode just struck me as the most ridiculous example of streaming-era fiscal insanity. But then I got a screener of the special a few days ago, and within about five minutes, all my cynicism melted away.

Director Ben Winston, producer of CBS’s The Late Late Show and this year’s really well-done Grammys, pretty much reinvents the reunion genre for streaming. It feels more like a documentary, one which serves as a love letter to both the show and its fans while also giving audiences a feel for what it was like to be part of a once-in-a-generation pop-culture phenom. And during the interview segments, moderator James Corden wisely stays in the background most of the time, keeping the focus on the six actors. While I still think the cost of the special is a bit ridiculous, there’s already evidence it is helping drive sign-ups; long term, I think it will prove to be a very wise investment. I haven’t watched a full episode of Friends in years, and now I can’t wait to revisit the show. Maybe we can get a reunion of The Nanny next?

Lessons From HBO Max’s First Year