We had a lot of questions going into Tuesday’s HBO Max investor day, and WarnerMedia answered many of them during its info-packed presentation, which lasted nearly three hours. From price ($15 a month) to release date (May 2020) to content (all 23 seasons of South Park and new series from people like Greg Berlanti, Mindy Kaling and Issa Rae), HBO Max and its execs made a strong case for why this service will be a force to be reckoned with in the upcoming streaming wars.
Here is a rundown of what we like the most about HBO Max coming out of investor day—and what worries us about the streaming service.
What we like
The price point: You can’t beat free, which is what HBO Max will in essence be to the roughly 34 million current HBO subscribers. For the same $15 that they already pay monthly for HBO, they’ll now receive “more than twice the content as HBO,” according to Otter Media CEO Tony Goncalves, including an additional 50 HBO Max originals in the first year alone, and more than 10,000 hours of content in all. For nonsubscribers, that $15 fee could be tough to swallow—it’s more than any other streaming service, and pricier than Disney+, Hulu and ESPN+ combined under Disney’s upcoming $13 bundle—but AT&T just made it significantly easier for current subscribers to justify holding on to those subscriptions as several new OTT services enter the space.
The library: A streaming service is only as good as the quality of its library (looking at you, Apple TV+, which currently doesn’t have one), and HBO Max’s got substantially more robust yesterday. We knew going in that the service would have exclusive streaming rights to Friends (the No. 2 most-streamed series on Netflix last year), The West Wing and Studio Ghibli’s animated features (which have never been available on a streaming service). After a flurry of announcements yesterday, the library now also includes exclusive streaming rights for South Park (which will be leaving Hulu), Rick & Morty (which HBO Max will share with Hulu) and several movie titles from the vaunted Criterion Collection, as well as Warner Bros. and MGM classics: 1,800 film titles in all. With Netflix shifting its focus away from library content to originals, even as library titles remain most-streamed on the service, the breadth of HBO Max’s offering should not be underestimated.
Co-viewing: HBO Max will be the first streaming platform to offer a “co-viewing” option in which viewers can create shared homepages with other family members that are different from their personal profiles. That means that, say, if you’re a parent, watching a Sesame Street marathon with your child will no longer wreak havoc on your profile’s algorithm recommendations. (Its streaming rivals would be wise to follow suit.)
Downloadable content: When Hulu rolled out the ability for its no-ads subscribers to download content to their devices earlier this month, that left HBO as the only major streaming company that didn’t offer a downloadable option to its users. That will finally change with HBO Max, which will give HBO subscribers the download capabilities they have lacked since HBO Go launched in 2010.
The coming ad-supported tier: HBO Max’s built-in footprint of 34 million HBO subscribers will help get it off the ground, but if AT&T wants to meet its lofty subscriber goals (50 million U.S. subs, and as many as 90 million worldwide subs, by 2025), it will need to offer a cheaper alternative. And that’s where the ad-supported offering, slated for 2021, comes in. Not only will it expand the market beyond those who can afford the $15 a month premium offering, it will give brands access to a major streaming service, which only Hulu and CBS All Access have provided until now (though Peacock, NBCUniversal’s upcoming OTT offering, will also be ad-supported).
The HBO brand is still distinct—for now: One of my biggest concerns about HBO Max is how it will likely erode the HBO brand, if that network’s content is lumped in with everything else, which presumably won’t be of the same top-shelf quality as HBO’s. By continuing to operate HBO as a stand-alone linear channel and clearly marking the HBO content in HBO Max, the company is trying to keep the HBO brand distinct—at least for now.
What we don’t like
The May 2020 release date: HBO Max was originally scheduled to debut by year’s end; instead, it won’t arrive until May. That’s six months after Apple TV+ and Disney+’s arrivals and a month following the rollouts of Peacock and Quibi (Jeffrey Katzenberg’s SVOD service featuring short-form content). So HBO Max will be bringing up the rear when it comes to entering the streaming wars, which will make it that much more difficult to attract attention from audiences, who will already be dealing with serious streaming fatigue by that point.
Recommended by humans: HBO Max will include a “Recommended By Humans” feature, in which “talent and influencers” will record short videos talking about their love for a particular film or TV series. If you’re looking for Zac Efron to recommend a horror film for you (he loves The Exorcist, he said in the clip demoed at the event), then I guess you’re in luck; I’m happy to sticking with recommendations from friends and peers, as well as my lengthy backlog of series I still need to catch up in the Peak TV world.
Continued HBO versus HBO Max confusion: As I noted above, WarnerMedia is working to keep the HBO brand distinct as part of this larger offering, but it’s still not clear what distinguishes HBO Max originals from HBO originals. Since HBO programming is the cream of the crop, going by that network’s Emmy dominance each year and other critical accolades, does that mean the HBO Max originals are more second-tier? And if those HBO Max shows are indeed HBO-worthy, then why aren’t they just appearing on the network in the first place? WarnerMedia has begun blurring the brands of its linear networks, but, in the streaming world, the company needs to be clearer about what sets HBO Max programming apart from HBO’s slate.