When it was announced last year, HBO Max sounded like a streaming service that could change the landscape of the online content delivery industry. A service from AT&T that combines programming from HBO and various other AT&T – Time Warner media holdings and outlets such as Cartoon Network, Turner Classic Movies and the Warner Brothers catalog of studio films, HBO Max and its more than 10,000 hours of content marked it as a contender easily rivaling giant Netflix for dominance in the online content delivery landscape.
But instead of coming into the ring swinging like the proverbial 800 pound gorilla, HBO Max stumbled across the ropes and plopped face first on the canvas. Wednesday’s roll out had its share of reported troubles in terms of access for subscribers and inundated customer service lines. These were all issues that were cleared up pretty quickly, and in the wake of similar problems during the first day or two that Disney+ was live weren’t too surprising.
And while the premier of HBO Max wasn’t as disappointing as the debut of the dead-on-arrival Quibi last month, there are a quartet of things that the service should have done differently to ensure a much smoother rollout for consumers.
I have always been at a loss as to why Warner Brothers branded this service with their Home Box Office cable outlet. HBO – the first subscription cable channel which coincidentally launched in Wilkes-Barre, PA, right near where I am writing this – as a cable service does not deal exclusively in presenting Warner Brothers-owned material. It presents films from a number of studios to its 140 million subscribers worldwide. HBO Max, however, appears to be serving product from not just HBO but also anything owned by Warner Brothers and its various subsidiaries such as Turner Classic Movies, Cartoon Network, Adult Swim, DC Entertainment, Crunchyroll, etc. While all this other content exists underneath the AT&T corporate umbrella, it is not necessarily readily identified with HBO. So there is a bit of a disconnect between the differing missions of the cable outlet and this new service. With HBO known for a specific type of programming, the HBO moniker does not convey the broader range of programming that HBO Max is offering.
Additionally, HBO already has two different streaming apps – HBO Go and HBO Now. Each of these apps are for different subscribers. The HBO Go app is for people who subscribe to the classic HBO cable channel and it allows them to stream the channel live or view curated HBO content on their phone, tablets and lap tops. It comes free with the standard HBO channel subscription through one’s local cable provider. HBO Now is designed more for those who have cut the cable but are still interested in watching HBO programming. It does not require a cable subscription but instead charges a monthly fee that is roughly equivalent to an HBO cable channel subscription. While you can’t watch HBO live through HBO Now, original programming such as Game Of Thrones or Last Week Tonight With John Oliver is often made available pretty much at the same time it airs on cable.
Enter HBO Max.
When first announced, many people seemed to be confused as to what the difference was between this new service and the two previously existing HBO apps. Was Max replacing one or possibly both? Warners had a year to try and explain it in their marketing how this was going to work and they didn’t do it. Instead, it seems like they relied on numerous websites reporting what differentiated HBO Go and HBO Now from HBO Max, without going out into the marketplace with an aggressive advertising campaign of their own detailing what changes would be happening with the two previously exciting apps once HBO Max premiered. And even then, there was still consumer confusion being expressed across social media leading up to this week’s launch. Which is crazy considering that for most people who have either HBO Go or HBO Now apps on their phone, tablet or smart TV, both services updated and transformed into HBO Max apps. That this simple changeover couldn’t be communicated effectively to consumers is a problem.
Lack Of Universal Streaming Device Support
While HBO Max is available for those with cable or smart TVs like Apple TV, it has left a significant portion of consumers out in the cold in terms of access. Subscribers who get HBO through Hulu or Amazon Prime or have the HBO Now app in their Roku or Amazon Fire TV stick setups are currently out-of-luck. That amounts to 5 million HBO subscribers through Amazon Prime, 32.3 million potential Roku users and 40 million Fire TV users unable to access HBO Max. For whatever reason, no deals to make HBO Max available through those services have been cemented. Statements released this week from both Amazon and Roku suggest the blame lies with AT&T, that could just be a very public negotiations maneuver. While HBO has indicated that it is currently seeking deals to allow access, not having it available on Day One is big disappointment to those 77 million potential subscribers. And it sees AT&T leaving a lot of money on the table.
Lack Of Support for Higher Def 4K, Atmos
In addition to no support yet for Roku and Amazon users, HBO Max has surprisingly no 4K, High Dynamic Range (HDR) or Atmos Dolby surround sound content available. True, 4K and HDR monitors have not made as much of an inroad into consumers’ homes as regular high-definition TVs have, but those who have made the upgrade love to have the content specifically designed for it. And when you have a service like HBO Max that holds exclusivity to some titles – in this case for example Game Of Thrones or the Harry Potter films – not having them available to you in the format best suited for your home theater system is a disappointment. Seeing as HBO Go and HBO Now never had support for those formats, HBO Max would have been the perfect time to introduce them to legacy customers making the switch as well as an added incentive for potential new ones. HBO Max has stated that they will be adding those formats at some point next year, but has offered no concrete details.
No “Killer App” Original Programming
HBO Max does have a pretty healthy lineup of catalog programming to start off with. They have all of the material being carried over from HBO Go and HBO Now in addition to a number of classic films and television series from the Warner Brothers library and branded cable channels. This selection is also beefed up with selections from the Criterion Channel.
But where is the original programming? One big draw was the announced Friends cast reunion special where presumably they would all get together and recount the travails of having so much money now, but coronavirus lockdowns prevented that from being filmed. HBO Max promises that they are still planning on creating the special once it becomes feasible to do so, but it was supposed to be a big Day One draw.
Right now, the only original programming appears to Love Life, a rom-com anthology series starring Anna Kendrick and produced by Paul Feig. Granted, I like both of these creatives, but this does not seem like programming that will generate conversation, interest and, most importantly, subscriptions. It is certainly not a show that would generate a comparable level of excitement and discussion like Disney+’s The Mandolorian did when that service launched last November. To be sure, there is a lot of interest in whatever form Zack Snyder’s reworking of Justice League will take when it appears on the service, but that is coming some nebulous point next year.
When all was said and done, the HBO Max app saw approximately 87,000 downloads Wednesday, the day of its debut. Adding in the amount of HBO Go and HBO Now users who service was eligible to roll over to HBO Max and the total number of initial subscribers for Max’s first day is still a decent number. But in comparison with Disney+’s debut day of 4 million first-day app installations and 10 million subscribers signed up overall, HBO Max could have done better. Granted, as the service manages to finalize deals with Roku and Amazon for delivery and rolls out more original content and support for high end home theaters and positive word-of-mouth energizes more consumers, those subscription numbers will start to rise.
But where it could have sprinted off the starting line, HBO Max stumbled, leaving it with some ground it will still need to cover if it is going to give Netflix and the other streaming giants a run for their money.