HBO Max Is Hedging Its Bets on HBO Originals and a Large Library of Established Content — Analysis

HBO Max has entered the streaming wars, and WarnerMedia is hedging its bets that the new platform’s massive back catalogue will warrant its premium price tag.

The AT&T-owned company’s new streaming service, which launched earlier today, boasts 10,000 hours of content from AT&T’s numerous brands and franchises, from the DC Extended Universe and CNN to the Turner Classic Movie catalogue and Studio Ghibli films. The platform is also home to the entire HBO catalogue — rejoice, “Game of Thrones” and “Westworld” fans — as well as all eight “Harry Potter” films and every episode of “Friends” and “The Big Bang Theory,” which WarnerMedia had previously licensed to competing distributors.

Though HBO Max’s catalogue doesn’t encompass every AT&T-owned release, such as the recent Harley Quinn film “Birds of Prey” or originals from the DC Universe streaming service, its library is nonetheless brimming with beloved releases, and its film and TV slates dwarf the launch day offerings from recent competitors like Disney+ and Apple TV+.

There’s a whole lot of content on HBO Max to love, but only if consumers are willing to pay the premium for it. (HBO Max is also offering a one-week free trial.) An HBO Max subscription costs $14.99 per month — unless you subscribed early for a discounted rate of $11.99 per month for the first year — and the standard rate is more expensive than the other leading streaming services on the market. A standard Netflix subscription runs $12.99 per month and Hulu’s ad-free version is $11.99 per month, while a month of Disney+ costs only $6.99.

As impressive as HBO Max’s quantity and quality of library content is, the streaming service’s slate of launch originals is more mixed. New streaming services typically need high-quality, popular originals to stand out in such a crowded market — see: Disney+ and “The Mandalorian” — but the release date for many of HBO Max’s highly-anticipated originals are still under wraps.

HBO Max launched with six originals, including an Anna Kendrick-led romance anthology titled “Love Life” and “On the Record,” a documentary about Russell Simmons’ accusers. The rest of its debut slate skews much younger, like the new episodes of “Looney Tunes,” the kid-friendly “Craftopia” competition series from YouTuber LaurDIY, and a late-night talk show for anyone with an early bedtime, “The Not-Too-Late Show With Elmo.”

Though the handful of children-oriented content could help broaden HBO Max’s appeal, the service is lacking in original scripted adult content. “Love Life” is HBO Max’s only awards-friendly, “premium” offering for mature audiences, but it’s received poor reviews from critics, including IndieWire’s Ben Travers, who criticized the series as “gratingly superficial” in his D+ review earlier this month. It’s no coincidence that HBO Max’s marketing has almost entirely focused on its vast library content, rather than its new series.

Still, any cord cutters subscribing to HBO Max should see a wealth of new originals over the coming months. All of HBO’s new offerings will be available via the service, including “Perry Mason,” “I Will Destroy You,” and “Lovecraft Country.” It’s a bit odd that other WarnerMedia properties aren’t immediately available — like TNT’s new drama, “Snowpiercer” — but in time, most of the media giant’s offerings should make their way through its new service.

WarnerMedia has already announced a variety of noteworthy original projects that will eventually premiere on HBO Max, but most of their releases are likely at least a few months away. Chief among those is the highly-anticipated non-scripted “Friends” reunion, which was expected to be the streaming service’s tentpole launch day release. Work on the special was indefinitely postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has also delayed work on other HBO Max series.

Future HBO Max exclusives include Zack Snyder’s personal cut of “Justice League,” the Kaley Cuoco-led “The Flight Attendant,” Ridley Scott’s “Raised By Wolves,” “Dune: The Sisterhood,” and reboots of “Gossip Girl” and “The Boondocks.” While the combined name recognition of those projects is considerable, none of them have concrete release dates. In the meantime, HBO Max will have to rely on the strength of its library content.

HBO Max could also face issues with its marketing. The new streaming services coexists with the HBO premium channel, the HBO Go app for HBO subscribers, and the standalone HBO Now streaming service. HBO Max and HBO Now cost the same, and the former offers far more content, but none of HBO’s services are being phased out just yet, which could cause confusion regarding how HBO Max fits into WarnerMedia’s overall strategy. Signing up for a paid HBO Max subscription via a web browser is simple, but accessing the service is convoluted on other platforms; HBO subscribers can get HBO Max via some cable providers at no additional charge, as can select AT&T wireless customers, but eligibility varies. Though HBO Max has inked distribution deals with most relevant platforms, the streaming service is noticeably unavailable on Roku and Amazon’s Prime Video Channels. Amazon criticized AT&T in a Wednesday statement obtained by Deadline.

“With a seamless customer experience, nearly 5 million HBO streamers currently access their subscription through Amazon’s Prime Video Channels,” a company spokesman said in a statement. “Unfortunately, with the launch of HBO Max, AT&T is choosing to deny these loyal HBO customers access to the expanded catalog. We believe that if you’re paying for HBO, you’re entitled to the new programming though the method you’re already using. That’s just good customer service, and that’s a priority for us.”

IndieWire has reached out to WarnerMedia regarding Amazon’s statement and the streaming service’s lack of availability on Prime Video Channels and Roku.

While HBO Max’s branding has had its complications, the streaming service itself boasts a remarkably clean and accessible interface. Though the platform has a sprawling amount of content, HBO Max’s many releases are neatly organized into easily-understandable categories. It’s simple to view HBO Max offerings by brand or genre, so whether viewers are singularly interested in Studio Ghibli films or just want to binge HBO’s recent television hits, finding programming rarely takes more than a few seconds.

The coming months will tell if HBO Max’s old and upcoming offerings can help it stand out in such a competitive market — NBCUniversal’s Peacock will release nationally in July, while Disney+ is gearing up to release highly-anticipated series in the fall — but it’d be unwise to count out any streaming service that already boasts such a large library of beloved legacy films and television content.

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