the streaming wars

HBO Max Struts Into the Streaming Thunderdome

Game of Thrones, Friends, and The Big Bang Theory are all on HBO Max.
Game of Thrones, Friends, and The Big Bang Theory are all on HBO Max now. Photo-Illustration: Vulture, HBO and Warner Bros. Television

Back in the early aughts, Friends was such a monster hit that NBC tried to maximize its ratings impact (and counter a hot new CBS reality show called Survivor) by occasionally adding ten minutes to the show’s half-hour time slot. The network’s marketing machine billed the episodes as “supersized,” and while critics rolled their eyes, the tactic was pretty much a success. Two decades later, Friends once again finds itself part of a giant entertainment company’s battle plans: WarnerMedia is using the classic comedy as one of the central perks of HBO Max, the AT&T-owned company’s multibillion-dollar bid to supersize the storied pay-cable network behind The Sopranos and Game of Thrones, and transform it into an international streaming powerhouse capable of battling Netflix.

Launching May 27, HBO Max is entering the streaming thunderdome in a strong position relative to combatants who’ve come before it. Unlike rival upstarts Disney+, Apple TV+, and Peacock, WarnerMedia isn’t starting from scratch with a completely new digital product. Instead, the company has basically taken the existing infrastructure of HBO Now, the direct-to-consumer version of the HBO cable network, and given it a massive upgrade. Content-wise, every single bit of programming that now lives on HBO (past, present, and future) will also stream on Max. But the new offering will be augmented by the end of 2020 with dozens of new original series and thousands of hours of classic movie and TV titles, from Friends and The Big Bang Theory to huge swaths of the Criterion Collection and the Studio Ghibli catalogue. While Max’s content lineup won’t be nearly as deep as Netflix’s roster, it will have a much broader focus than family-friendly Disney+ and a much bigger library than originals-only Apple TV+. “There’s nobody else who’s going to enter this market on the scale that we are,” says Robert Greenblatt, chairman of Warner Media Entertainment and Direct-to-Consumer.

Max also arrives with a huge base of built-in subscribers. A big chunk of the 34 million or so folks who currently subscribe to HBO (via a cable company, a live TV streaming service, or directly through HBO Now) will be able to use existing login credentials to access Max. In many cases, their service will just automatically be upgraded without having to take any action at all. And no, WarnerMedia isn’t expecting folks to pay more for Max: The souped-up version of HBO is being offered at no extra cost for existing subscribers and costs the same $14.99 per month as HBO Now for newcomers. The company believes that adding (a lot) more programming for the same price will help HBO hold on to its existing subscriber base, while convincing consumers who’ve thus far resisted the lure of HBO that this new offering is worth $3 more than what Netflix charges for its most popular plan.

In general, industry analysts believe WarnerMedia is making the right move by expanding HBO as TV transitions from its linear past into its streaming future. The size and scope of Max’s offering, combined with the muscle of both WarnerMedia and AT&T, makes it a likely winner of the streaming horse race. But while the long-term outlook for Max seems solid, the new platform nonetheless faces a few immediate hurdles. For one, while WarnerMedia’s marketing mavens have been doing their best to make the brand proposition of Max simple to grasp — “Where HBO meets so much more” is the sales pitch — it seems inevitable that some consumers will be initially confused about the new platform, how it works, and why it’s different than HBO Go or HBO Now.

Cable and satellite customers already have HBO Go, and cord-cutters have been using HBO Now since 2015. Max is essentially meant to replace those services and complement the linear feed of the HBO cable network — but not everyone will immediately get that. Greenblatt concedes the potential for consumer head-scratching but says that, at least among current HBO customers, the transition to Max should be relatively seamless. “I think that confusion will start to dissipate over the next few weeks, if it already hasn’t,” he says. “People will find it relatively simple to opt in. It’s just sort of like an upgrade, basically. And I think they’ll be thrilled to learn that it’s not going to cost them anymore … We’re doing everything we can to make it really simple and easy for them to do it because it’s only to our advantage to get them in the new ecosystem.”

As for the larger universe of people who don’t currently pay for HBO — the eyeballs that WarnerMedia is hoping will drive its subscription video growth — the Max mission will be made a tad more difficult by the fact that the classic iterations of HBO aren’t disappearing just yet. “Go and Now are going to still be there because there are some contractual obligations. We have to keep them as standalone,” Greenblatt explains, referring to WarnerMedia’s deals with cable operators. He doesn’t see this as much of a hurdle, however, since the company has made it very clear in its marketing that Max is “the bigger, better alternative where you get the HBO service and so much more for the same price,” he says. “I think the consumer is pretty smart. They smell a great value and a better deal. And we’ll help that along any way we can.” But even if someone opts to sign up for HBO Now instead of Max, WarnerMedia still wins: The company gets the same $15 per month whichever digital product they choose. “If somebody just wants HBO Now and they don’t want Max, I’m fine to have them as an HBO Now customer,” Greenblatt says.

Some industry wags have also privately wondered whether HBO Max, with its broader programming mandate, could weaken the halo that has long surrounded the HBO brand and allowed it to market itself as superior to traditional television. Such critiques are understandable, yet they also may misunderstand how audiences interact with TV networks and platforms. The early-1980s NBC that established itself as TV’s “quality” network with acclaimed series such as St. Elsewhere, Hill Street Blues, and Cheers at the same time churned out crowd-pleasers loathed by critics (The A-Team, Knight Rider, Mama’s Family). Similarly, HBO historically has blended in less highfalutin fare like Ballers, Entourage, and Taxicab Confessions alongside its Emmy giants, while also regularly filling airtime with bad movies that end up on the service for no other reason than the network made an output deal with a film studio. Sure, HBO is incredibly selective in its programming choices relative to other networks, but it’s not nearly as precious about its brand as some observers would like to argue.

Even so, WarnerMedia is consciously working to make sure Max doesn’t feel like the place where the upscale HBO meets the experience of flipping through a dozen middlebrow basic-cable channels at 1 a.m. in the morning. Instead, the goal is to find a middle ground between HBO’s boutique approach to content and the “all things to all people” approach practiced to great success by Netflix and Amazon’s Prime Video. The strategy will become evident to audiences when they browse HBO Max’s library titles: There will certainly be a lot of programming to stream, but the offering won’t go nearly as deep as what can be found elsewhere, particularly when it comes to classic TV series. Friends, The Big Bang Theory, The O.C., and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air will be there, but you won’t find the Friends spinoff Joey (probably a good thing!); huge Warner Bros. TV shows such as Dallas, Knot’s Landing, and ER; or long-running ’80s and ’90s staples such as Alice, Eight Is Enough, Murphy Brown, and Night Court. And while HBO Max is promising 2,000 film titles within the first year, that’s about half as many as what you’ll find on Netflix and nowhere near the estimated 10,000+ titles on Prime Video.

All of this is by design, Max execs say. While there are more than 40,000 film titles alone in the various libraries under the WarnerMedia empire, putting all or even most of them on the service was never seriously considered. Instead, teams of staffers and execs spent months combing through the available movies and shows to identify ones they thought were must-have — the stuff that would mean something to audiences rather than just collect digital dust while sitting in someone’s watchlist. “Coming into this marketplace with a product called HBO, we said, let’s create a library that stands for something [too],” says Kevin Reilly, HBO Max’s chief content officer. “We knew, by definition, we weren’t going to win the superstore game against Netflix or Amazon — and we had no desire to.” Greenblatt adds that culling the vast library of potential titles and selecting the best of the bunch was key to ensuring Max didn’t just feel like a dumping ground for WarnerMedia-owned content, and to helping subscribers find stuff they actually want to watch. “We’re not just throwing everything we can get our hands on into it,” he says. “It’s controlled to the point where hopefully your expectations are that everything we offer has some level of quality to it.”

The same thinking applies to the new shows being produced for the platform. Reilly says he and HBO Max head of original content Sarah Aubrey want their slate to feel at home next to HBO’s big titles, even if they are projects the mothership probably wouldn’t have greenlit. “By definition, Max is the complement to the HBO service,” Reilly says. “We know HBO has a very clear lane that they play in. It’s adult, it’s sophisticated, it’s sometimes R-rated. Max is in all categories and all demos.” So while HBO is targeting younger adult viewers with a series like Euphoria, “They would never do a Greg Berlanti–type young-adult show or a D.C. [Comics] property that may have a younger skew to it,” he says, alluding to Berlanti’s upcoming Green Lantern series for the platform. Similarly, most of HBO’s unscripted roster is devoted to documentary projects or talk shows. Max will dive deep into the reality-competition waters with series such as the voguing-themed Legendary. Reilly says Max’s unscripted portfolio will be “excellent,” but that those kinds of shows are “just not what HBO does.”

To make sure the HBO and Max brands don’t clash or work against each other, Greenblatt has broken down barriers between the historically siloed fiefdoms within the broader WarnerMedia programming empire. In addition to HBO and HBO Max, everything from TNT and TBS to Cartoon Network and Crunchyroll come under the WarnerMedia Entertainment banner, and all are now supplying content to the umbrella offering of Max, as are separate production units such as Warner Bros. TV and the newly created Warner Max film unit (run jointly by Reilly and Warner Bros. Pictures Group boss Toby Emmerich). “When I first got there, many people from HBO had never even met the people from Turner and Warner Brothers,” says Greenblatt, who joined the company from NBC in early 2019.

Indeed, before AT&T took over what is now WarnerMedia in 2018, units (particularly HBO) operated independently, both to encourage competition and because it was considered quite possible that Time Warner would eventually be split into separate companies. Now Reilly says development execs from HBO and HBO Max will sometimes take the same pitch meetings and then decide afterward which team should pursue the project. Similarly, there’s more overlap with execs: HBO vet Meredith Gertler now oversees program planning and strategy for both linear HBO and Max, while Turner vet Michael Quigley coordinates library content acquisition for Max, too.

Of course, what Greenblatt and Reilly hail as synergy can also be read as the possible dilution of what made HBO great for so many years. This joining together of previously distinct operations prompted a painful wave of defections from HBO over the last year, including respected HBO chairman Richard Plepler and a slew of lesser known but still vital execs in publicity and marketing (a.k.a. the team that led HBO’s Emmy campaigns for decades). But while the talent drain at HBO is real, most of the network’s day-to-day creative team, including president Casey Bloys — the folks behind recent hits such as Succession and Barry — remains in place. And there’s been no sign Greenblatt or his bosses at AT&T have done anything to threaten HBO’s editorial voice or forced it to make programming choices in the name of subscriber growth (like, say, Game of Thrones: The Animated Series or Veep: The Teenage Years.)

“They’re still making shows like they always have, which is in a very handmade fashion,” Greenblatt says of Bloys and his team. “Everybody thought, after Game of Thrones went off the air, we would suddenly drop to our knees and then fall apart. But there’s so much great stuff percolating at HBO, and I think it’s just going to continue on its roll.” While Greenblatt leaves open the possibility of expanding HBO’s roster above its current level of about 200 hours annually, he vows it won’t suddenly shift into Netflix mode and churn out a couple new series every week: “I’d love to increase it a little if we could, but it’s not going to be, ‘Okay, Casey suddenly increase by 50 percent!’” (It’s worth noting that HBO’s current production output is up sharply from where it was a few years ago, but that increase was put into motion by Bloys and Plepler before AT&T officially took over.)

The two other big hurdles for HBO Max are related: The coronavirus pandemic and the service’s $15 per month cost. Entering the market at a higher price point than its major rivals was always going to be a challenge for Max, but doing so at a time when the unemployment rate is higher than at any point since the Great Depression and many of those with jobs are faced with shrinking paychecks is … not ideal. The pandemic-related production shutdown also means the complexion of Max’s early originals slate will look a bit different than planned, with signature projects such as a Gossip Girl reboot and the Kaley Cuoco–led drama The Flight Attendant pushed to late fall or 2021. Reilly says he still expects to have between 30 and 40 original offerings in 2020 (including movies and series acquired from other countries), but admits it’s “really disappointing” not to have some of his most high-profile projects ready to go.

If filming starts up again by early fall, Max should be able to wing it without audiences seeing too much of a difference in its offering — particularly since HBO proper also has a number of series ready to go for later this year. Should there be a longer delay, or future shutdowns prompted by new waves of infection, Max will obviously suffer. But as Greenblatt notes, other networks and platforms have to contend with the same issue. “We’re all in the same boat,” he says. As for getting consumers who don’t currently get HBO to sign up for Max, parent company AT&T has plenty of ways it can help juice subscriber numbers in the near-term. It’s already making Max available for free to a big chunk of its customer base, more so than it had already done for HBO. The communications giant could get even more aggressive if need be, giving Max away for free to virtually all of its paying customers, the way Apple has done with Apple TV+. Plus, planning is already underway for an advertiser-supported (and presumably much lower priced, or even free) version of HBO Max, perhaps as early as next year. That would open the service up to millions more price-sensitive consumers while also bringing in a new revenue stream. An international version of the platform is also scheduled to come online within the next two years or so.

WarnerMedia’s subscriber goal for HBO Max is ambitious but realistic: It wants to add 16 million new customers to HBO’s current roster of 34 million subscribers within five years, putting the HBO brand in 50 million U.S. homes by 2025. Once international distribution kicks in, WarnerMedia is targeting a total subscriber base of between 75 million and 90 million homes over the same five-year frame. Given the speed with which audiences are embracing streaming, these numbers seem more than doable. Disney+ has reached 55 million subscribers in the U.S. and a handful of international markets in a little more than six months, while Netflix has just under 70 million U.S. subscribers and nearly 183 million globally. The pandemic could make progress toward these milestones a bit slower than expected, but Greenblatt says the benchmark for success remains the same: “In five to seven years, we want to be one of the dominant services in the world.”

HBO Max Struts Into the Streaming Thunderdome