hbo axe’d

All Your Most Frantic HBO Max Questions, Answered

FBoy Island. Photo: HBO Max

You’ve probably heard reports since the summer that TV shows and films on HBO Max are disappearing: Some have been canceled before production even wrapped up, like Batgirl and the second season of Minx, while others were Max mainstays that suddenly lost a streaming home entirely, like Love Life and Gordita Chronicles. Even marquee HBO shows like Mrs. Fletcher and, last week, Westworld, haven’t been able to escape the ax. This situation is messy — and complicated by the fact that parent company Warner Bros. Discovery finds itself in pretty dire financial straits. We’ve broken down the ins and outs of it here, answering the biggest questions you might have about the fate of a go-to streamer and why your favorite bit of premium programming might have disappeared from it.

First of all: Is HBO Max going away? What is happening?

Yes and no. Warner Bros. Discovery isn’t getting out of the streaming game, and there will continue to be a service that blends everything that airs on HBO’s cable network with a broader mix of content from the WBD library (everything from Friends to Casablanca). But while nothing is official, the name “HBO Max” is very likely going to change in 2023. That’s partially because, after spending 2022 taking content off its signature streamer, WBD plans to actually start expanding the platform’s offering in 2023.

Specifically, subscribers will see a lot more programming from networks such as TLC, HGTV, ID, and the Discovery Channel as WBD essentially shuts down Discovery+ (which costs $5 a month) and merges it with what we now know as HBO Max (starting price $10 per month, though most folks pay $15). With Homicide Hunter and Who the (Bleep) Did I Marry? soon to live next to The Sopranos and Succession, the thinking is the platform needs a name that doesn’t scare off heartland audiences who want (reality) TV, not HBO. At the same time, there are folks within HBO proper who believe, now more than ever, their iconic brand needs to be separated from such a big tent streamer.

Why are they doing this?

In a word, money. Warner Bros. Discovery has more than $50 billion of debt on its balance sheet, and its overall value as a company has sunk this year as Wall Street investors have lost a bit of faith in the long-term profitability of streaming. In an attempt to get the company’s finances in better shape, WBD has been laying off staffers, shutting down divisions, and looking for cost savings wherever it can find them. As it turns out, there are special accounting rules that apply within a few months of a corporate merger like the one that created WBD. Essentially, these regulations let the new company write down future losses now under more favorable terms than would normally apply. As we wrote earlier this month, “Taking shows such as Minx or Westworld out of the HBO Max and, more importantly, the WBD library will apparently help the megacorporation make its future balance sheets look a lot better. This isn’t just about saving a few thousand dollars on residual checks or licensing costs; it’s about writing down millions in amortization costs these titles would have incurred in coming years.”

Will I ever be able to see these shows again?

It depends! Many, and possibly most, of the TV shows that are being purged from HBO Max will be available to buy on iTunes or Amazon. In addition, a big percentage will very likely show up on other streaming platforms — though probably not big ones such as Netflix or Prime Video. The same rules that let WBD turn its losses into “savings” also say that the company can’t gain any material profit from the titles. That means WBD can’t just sell four seasons of Westworld to Hulu and collect a nice check. But apparently, allowing these shows to appear on free, ad-supported TV streamers — a.k.a. FAST platforms — such as Pluto TV or the Roku Channel is okay. That’s because of how deals are done in this part of the business: Rather than paying studios millions up front to license shows, free streamers typically agree to share ad revenue generated by such titles. For you or me, the money raised would probably sound like a lot, but for a company the size of WBD, the revenue is apparently not considered “significant” enough to count. That’s good news for fans, however, because it means many of the exited titles won’t just collect digital dust in a digital vault.

What’s the deal with the FAST stuff, anyway?

The acronym generally describes streamers that let you watch their content without any sort of subscription and, most of the time, without even entering any sort of personal information. The big players in the space include Pluto TV, Amazon’s Freevee, Tubi, XUMO, and the Roku Channel. In addition to giving viewers the chance to watch shows and movies on demand à la Netflix, these platforms offer the option of a linear-TV-like experience, where you scroll through an electronic program guide of virtual channels and just start watching whatever is playing at the time. The trade-off for all this free-streaming goodness? Commercials. While it’s nowhere near as bad as cable, which these days can cram more than 20 minutes of ads into an hour, you’re usually going to see your show interrupted four or five times, with ad breaks ranging from as short as 30 seconds to upwards of three minutes, depending on the platform and the show. And unlike cable, you can’t just DVR a show and fast-forward.

Will it be impossible to watch these shows without ads? Even shows that originally ran on HBO???

While Minx (or any title not owned by WBD) could end up on a subscription streamer with an ad-free option, everything else is headed for FAST, so … yes. You’re almost surely going to have to put up with some ads during your Westworld binge.

Ugh. Do people even watch FAST shows?

While none of the FAST platforms regularly say how many people watch individual titles, the FAST category is doing very well right now. Pluto TV, for example, regularly shows up in Nielsen’s monthly tally of how big streamers are doing and has at times accounted for up to 1 percent of all streaming minutes in the U.S. during a given month. That might not sound like a lot, but in Nielsen’s most recent tally, HBO Max accounted for just 1.2 percent of all streaming consumption in November, while Disney+ was at 2 percent. So, yeah, people watch FAST.

Which shows will resurface, and where?

It’s too soon to say for sure, but last week, WBD said it would be looking to do FAST deals for Westworld, The Nevers, Raised by Wolves, FBoy Island, Legendary, Finding Magic Mike, Head of the Class, and The Time Traveler’s Wife. Given that FAST platforms are home to far, far less high-profile programming, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where these titles don’t end up somewhere in 2023. Meanwhile, series HBO Max bought from outside suppliers — i.e., that weren’t produced by a division of Warner Bros. TV or HBO proper — are in many cases being released back to the studios that made them. That means it will be up to those studios to figure out what to do with them, though WBD said it will use its clout in the marketplace to help these shows find a home, either on FAST or, theoretically, a subscription streamer such as Netflix. The five titles that maybe could pop up elsewhere are Minx, Gordita Chronicles, Love Life, The Garcias, and Made for Love. 

As for the many shows culled from HBO Max back in late summer — including lots from Adult Swim and Cartoon Network — don’t look for them on FAST. A WBD rep says there are no plans to license those titles anywhere else. Many of them, however, are already available for purchase or rental.

Do any still have the potential to get other seasons elsewhere?

The others owned and produced by WBD are apparently dead and buried. But as noted above, the company is being very flexible with the shows owned by outside studios and is basically letting them do whatever they want. And in the case of Minx, producer Lionsgate has said it will look to find a home for the already filmed season two of the show and potentially find a buyer for a season three. It could even opt to put the show on its own cable-streaming platform, Starz. As for the other shows from outside studios, most were axed months ago, and while anything is possible, if they were coming back, we’d likely know by now.

I read that HBO wants to do its own version of a FAST platform. So why is it selling these shows to other people’s FASTs?

It’s all about those dang restructuring regulations. The shows and movies purged from HBO Max (as well as some from Discovery+ and CNN) have to be completely disowned by WBD or else they can’t be written off as losses. This is different from when one of the Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings movies filters off HBO Max for a few months, or when certain shows leave Netflix but then come back a year or two later. In those situations, streamers are simply saving money by no longer licensing a title. That’s not what happened here. WBD has basically had to bury these shows and make sure they’re no longer sources of significant profit to the company. If they were to appear on — let’s call it FreeMAX — then WBD would be profiting by selling a bunch of advertising on the shows while also building up the value of its own free streamer. WBD wants to be in the FAST business, and it will be using the rest of its vast library of content to create this service. But sadly, FBoy Island can not be part of whatever new free-streaming utopia the company is planning.

So what’s to stop WBD from purging another 30 shows from HBO Max in a few months? Is anything safe?

Well, look, shows and movies come and go from streaming all the time. Anything is possible. But here’s the upshot: Those special rules that made banishing these titles so attractive to WBD bean counters will no longer apply come 2023. In the future, any money WBD would save by removing a show like, say, The Comeback from HBO Max (or whatever it will be called) would pale next to the savings it realized this year. But even if the company decided it needed to save a few bucks, there’d definitely be no reason to disown the show completely. Instead, WBD could decide to license some lesser-watched titles to a Netflix or Prime Video, either on an exclusive or nonexclusive basis. Quite frankly, we probably will see a lot more “only on HBO Max” titles start popping up on other streamers in the next year or two.

This seems really complicated.

It is! Even the industry sources we’ve talked to in recent weeks admit to getting headaches when trying to figure it all out. But in the end, it’s all pretty simple: WBD found itself in a pretty bad place at the end of 2022. The Netflix Correction of ’22 changed the profit equation for streaming, and the advertising recession that’s hit all of TV has reduced income. Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav had a choice between making his company’s balance sheet look a lot better in the years ahead or having to deal with angry tweets and stories about how much harm he’s caused the HBO brand. In the end, it probably wasn’t even a close call.

What if my favorite shows never come back?

Sadly, all we can offer is our condolences. But when recovering from a great loss or heartbreak, it’s helpful to reframe the narrative: Focus on the good times you shared with the free-spirited denizens of FBoy Island. Remember the heartwarming laughs you enjoyed with The Gordita Chronicles. And remember that if there’s one takeaway from this whole mess, it’s that we have to appreciate the TV we’ve got while it’s still around.

All Your Most Frantic HBO Max Questions, Answered