HBO Max is a mess — but its still a smart bet on HBO’s future

But here’s the thing: These missteps won’t matter in the long run. This isn’t a Quibi situation, a fundamentally flawed service that has no place in the current media landscape. HBO Max is everything HBO already offered, plus exclusive shows and films from the Warner library. It’s also the only place you can stream Friends, South Park and Studio Ghibli titles in the US. (Netflix nabbed Ghibli rights elsewhere, excluding Canada and Japan.) Even if you’re not obsessed with HBO’s shows, there’s a wealth of content that makes a Max subscription worthwhile. 

You can think of HBO Max as WarnerMedia’s  $4 billion bet on the future. It’s a unified streaming platform that does away with the confusing need for separate apps. (Previously, cable subscribers used HBO Go while digital-only customers used Now.) Instead of just competing with other premium networks like Showtime, HBO Max is taking aim at Disney+, Netflix and Hulu. And based on its existing content alone — including cinephile-friendly Turner Classic Movies and geek-friendly Crunchyroll anime — HBO Max is better poised than Apple TV+ to be a major streaming player.

That’s a good thing for AT&T, as it needs to prove that its $85 billion Time Warner acquisition was actually a success. But there’s still plenty of work ahead. For one, WarnerMedia needs to add Roku and Fire TV support as soon as possible. (Roku representatives wouldn’t comment when asked about HBO Max.) It also needs 4K and HDR support, both of which are major quality advantages for Disney+ and Netflix. Lastly, HBO Max needs to be broadly available to every cable subscriber. Currently, it supports major providers like Charter, Verizon, Optimum and Cox. 

In the long run, HBO Max needs to step up its original content even further to justify the high $14.99 monthly cost. (For reference, Disney+ starts at $7 a month, while Netflix’s standard monthly plan costs $13.) It’s launching with six originals, like the romantic comedy Love Life and an Elmo talk show, but none of it is exactly “must watch TV.” The Friends reunion could have been a big draw at launch, but that was delayed because of the COVID-19 epidemic. 

WarnerMedia had previously planned to launch 50 original shows during the first year, but it’s unclear if that will actually happen. At this point, the service is banking heavily on HBO’s already strong original lineup. But the network is still trying to find its next Game of Thrones, and its more limited selection of shows can’t compete with the deluge of Netflix offerings.

To be clear, I’m not excusing HBO Max’s messy launch. WarnerMedia deserves all of the criticism it’s getting, and it could have avoided plenty of headaches by securing partnerships ahead of time, and reaching out to its customers more. But the real story of HBO Max lies ahead, in a future where every media company will need a marquee service to stay relevant.

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