Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
It’s been a month since AT&T-owned WarnerMedia released HBO Max, and while the literal launch went smoothly: the app works fine and there have been no major tech issues; the media narrative about the new streaming platform has been less than ideal.
Not a disaster: originals like Love life and LegendaryWhile it doesn’t exactly dominate the pop culture conversation, it has received solid reviews from critics, and the Max UI improves nicely on the already solid HBO Now roster it was built on. Also, you can finally stream friends again (or, if it’s me, every episode of Scooby Doo.)
And yet, from the start, Max’s executives have been plagued by multiple setbacks:
• The platform freezes: While a last-minute deal with Comcast gave Max access to one of the country’s largest cable and internet providers, the transmitter is not yet available on Roku and Amazon Fire. Those two companies dominate the independent streaming device market in the U.S., so not being a part of those ecosystems is no small feat: at a time when there was a ton of free media touting the release of Max, Millions of potential subscribers who found out that the platform simply could not subscribe to the service. (It is not difficult to find people on social media angry about this.) Sure, tens of millions of homes can still get Max out through their smart TVs, video game consoles, Apple TV, or Google Chromecast; Cable companies like Comcast are even integrating Max on proprietary platforms like Xfinity X1. It has not paralyzed the new streamer. That said, Roku and Amazon’s decision to play hard with WarnerMedia is costing Max, making it harder to add new subscribers quickly.
• The name game: Despite valiant pre-launch attempts to explain everything to consumers (both Max and media journalists like yours), the headache from HBO’s Many Faces (Max! Go! Now! Original Recipe! Cool Ranch!) Still a head-scraper. Not that AT&T was wrong to connect the HBO brand to their big challenge for Netflix; that It was logical, since HBO is the OG of subscription television. The problem is that AT&T did not do what it now says it will do – that is, get rid of HBO Go and make it clear that HBO Now is now HBO Max. There would have always been some confusion among consumers regarding the difference between Max and HBO. Having those other names only made things exponentially worse.
• Wind-ghazi: Turner Classic Movies has put on its exhibitions gone With the Wind in context by having your hosts explain the many troublesome aspects of the film. But that cure initially didn’t extend to the movie’s presence on HBO Max, and when director John Ridley called the platform in Los Angeles. Times opinion piece, chaos ensued. The platform executives made the right decision: they realized that it was a mistake to have presented the film without mentioning its racist elements, and they decided to correct things quickly, perhaps too quickly. The film was pulled, before Max could explain that he had no intention of permanently removing it from circulation, and once journalists and Twitter noticed, well … it was too late. The transmitter issued a statement within hours of the first report stating that GWTW I’d be back soon with a proper and contextual introduction, but that’s an eternity in the Twitter era. Right-wing snowflakes complaining of canceling the culture seized the opportunity to attack Hollywood, while one of Max’s greatest assets, his profound library of classic films, became a source of controversy rather than celebration. GWTW He’s back in Max from yesterday, complete with a new introduction, but it was all an unnecessary distraction. Max’s programmers should have addressed this before the service launched.
Buzzing, but of the wrong kind: Max’s executives surely would have preferred most of the month-long stories to revolve around critics marveling at the comic charm of Love life, or the bold narrative of reality competition Legendary, or even the eternal tenderness of Elmo’s nightly talk show. But it just didn’t happen: surely more digital ink was spilled on the brand’s confusion and the merits of an 80-year-old film than the creative production of the platform or how well the technology behind it worked. This is due in part to the (often unfortunate) feedback loop between social media and the media, where What People Talk About on Twitter often ends up becoming news.
But it also doesn’t help that the streaming world, including HBO Max, hides or delays the release of more concrete data, which could be used to establish better metrics for success. In the days when there were still new cable networks rolling out regularly, reporters and media analysts could look at the rankings to get a rough idea of a channel’s performance. However, streamers almost never publish audience statistics, and even when they do, they are often not as helpful in determining the actual size of the audience. And although most do Please report how many people have subscribed, they tend to do so only once every three months or so, usually during quarterly earnings calls. (Disney broke that last rule by immediately revealing first-day sign-ups, and it was a smart move: The large number played down the platform’s early technical issues and immediately helped shape the idea that the service was exit).
This information gap means that The Reporters Who Cover Streaming TV (if I can adapt a phrase from the great Lisa de Moraes) have been forced to improve when trying to assess how the platforms work, particularly when these platforms are new and there is little or no information about subscriptions and unsubscribing. Critics who don’t love an early batch of new shows and are bored by the library’s lack of content become “Is Apple TV + doomed? America goes crazy for Baby Yoda becomes “How smart are those Disney + executives?
I’m exaggerating a bit here, of course, and pleading guilty to holding on to stories about how a streamer is doing based on anecdotal evidence. Netflix’s recent decision to release all ten self-reported movie and TV show lists has been a brilliant marketing move, as it instantly gives journalists a reason to justify writing about a title, as I did last week. with Avatar, the last airbender. (Be sure to come back next week for my 1,000-word essay on Floor is lavaNetflix’s # 1 show for much of last week, at least according to Netflix.)
Still, there is a reason I started this week’s newsletter by calling Max’s first month weaknesses “hiccups”: I think HBO Max is probably fine now. At least two of the three issues I listed above aren’t going to matter to the platform’s long-term (or even short-term) success. gone With the Wind it’s already streaming again and any setbacks that Max suffered from how he handled the temporary deletion is already … gone. The name could be a problem for a little while longer, especially if people still don’t understand that HBO Max really is HBO with more stuff. But ultimately, I think it all works out and most people will simply find that the best way to access HBO outside of the cable world is through the HBO Max app.
Photo-Illustration: Vulture and HBOMax
The only heartburn of the launch month that could become a headache for AT&T is the dispute with Roku and Amazon Fire TV. Just this week, Roku increased the stakes by sending an email to users warning anyone currently receiving HBO through HBO Go that the app will disappear in late July. Such a letter conveniently sidesteps the fact that WarnerMedia would be happy to allow Roku users to download HBO Max instead, nor does it mention that Roku is expecting better financial terms. It will be interesting to see if consumers hold Roku and Amazon accountable or blame HBO Max if this lingers.
I’m also curious to know if WarnerMedia fights back by launching the common type of educational campaign every time a cable company withdraws (or threatens to withdraw) a television network due to disagreements over distribution rates. A media executive this week told me that he believes that many Roku and Fire TV users, who bought those devices with the understanding that they would offer access to all major platforms, would be infuriated if they realized that HBO was not the one playing. hard here. . Will AT&T send text messages to millions of customers and tell them that Roku is holding his HBO hostage? Could the company offer subscribers heavily discounted Apple TV units or free Google Chromecast devices so they can stream HBO Max? Or will WarnerMedia collapse, realizing that they need the Roku (and Amazon) platforms more than they need a moral victory against Roku’s demands?
Rich Greenfield and his fellow media analysts at Lightshed Partners predict that the former is more likely. “This is an important agreement that sets precedents and will set the power dynamic in a fairly nascent industry,” the company wrote on its blog this week. “The implications go beyond just HBO. We suspect that AT&T is very aware and likely to be patient, even if it has a new brand. “
The long game: In fact, even beyond the showdown with Roku (and Amazon), AT&T knows that HBO Max’s success will be measured over the course of years, not months. The fact is, it launched with a large subscriber base, at 30 million, thanks to the decision to give HBO subscribers access to Max at no additional cost. Unlike Apple or Disney + or[[[[shudderQuibi, you are not starting from scratch building your streamer. AT&T needs to attract new subscribers, of course, to justify the billions in additional content on Max. But if new subscriptions come slower than expected, it won’t be a disaster, even if it won’t be ideal. Furthermore, the company may rightly note that the coronavirus pandemic has deprived it of some key programming, while the economic downturn may be making it more difficult to get new customers.
Expect the first actual report card on HBO Max on July 23, when AT&T reports its second-quarter earnings.