As a professional TV critic, the question I get asked most frequently isn’t “What should I be watching?” It isn’t “Which streaming services do I actually have to sign up for?” It isn’t even “Sounds cool. Is that on Netflix?”
It’s “What on Earth is HBO Max?”
Walking through the what, why, and how of the Streaming Wars’ latest combatant would require a full explainer, of which there are already many available on the internet, some of them from HBO itself. In short: Wednesday’s launch is the end result of a massive, yearslong merger between AT&T, a communications company, and Time Warner, an entertainment company. Once the acquisition survived a challenge from the Justice Department in federal court, a 15-month process stretching from late 2016 to mid-2018, AT&T rebranded its new asset as WarnerMedia and set about pooling the two companies’ resources.
The result is a service meant to combine the infrastructure of AT&T with the substance of WarnerMedia, itself a sprawling conglomerate made up of elements like Warner Bros., CNN, Cartoon Network, TNT, TBS, half of the CW, and of course, HBO. In hedging against the decline of linear cable on the AT&T side and the splintering of audiences on the WarnerMedia one, executives like AT&T president John Stankey aim to deliver a four-quadrant competitor to rivals like Netflix, Amazon, or Disney. HBO Max is meant to be nothing less than the future of the company, and AT&T has invested accordingly: Variety puts the price tag at $4 billion in the next three years, a combination of production budgets, licensing fees, and lost revenue from releasing projects in-house instead of on other networks or in theaters.
Spending too long on high-level corporate chess risks drowning in a jargon soup of “synergy” and “growth sectors.” So to the average consumer, “HBO Max” means three things: original content, both movies and TV shows; a prodigious back catalog sourced from WarnerMedia’s many subdivisions; and HBO proper. Subscribers to HBO’s stand-alone streaming app HBO Now should be upgraded automatically, while those who get the channel as part of their streaming package can upgrade relatively easily, unless their provider—Roku and Amazon, for example—hasn’t struck a deal with AT&T yet. But while HBO Max may have HBO’s library, much of its user base, and part of its name, the two are fully separate entities with separate staffs. HBO is overseen by Casey Bloys, who’s guided the network into its post–Game of Thrones era; the chief content officer of HBO Max is Kevin Reilly, a veteran executive most recently at TNT, TBS, and truTV.
If that seems like a lot to process, especially for a 2020 audience already swamped with entertainment options, that’s because it is. Which is a shame, since my answer to that “What’s HBO Max?” question has always been: a pretty great deal, if you can fight your way through the nonsensical branding.
Let’s start with price. HBO Max costs $14.99, which is more than virtually any other streaming service—Netflix starts from $8.99, Hulu $11.99 for its ad-free version, Disney+ $6.99, Apple TV+ $4.99, Quibi the same (and $7.99 without ads). Granted, those sticker prices are somewhat misleading: Max is offering an introductory deal that averages out to $11.99 per month for a full year, while other services like Hulu, Disney+, and ESPN come in bundles that cost more than any single service. Most importantly, Max costs exactly as much as regular HBO already does. (For legal reasons, mostly HBO’s existing deals with cable providers, Max couldn’t go any lower than its namesake, so AT&T took the next best option and kept it the same.) And for an identical sum of money, you now get a lot more stuff.
Said stuff may not be new, but you’ve definitely heard of it. The crown jewel is Friends, which WarnerMedia took back from Netflix after years of leasing out its most valuable IP. Because one monster hit of a sitcom wasn’t enough, Friends will be buttressed by all 12 seasons of The Big Bang Theory—plus seasons of Sesame Street, The Bachelor, Rick and Morty, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, The Boondocks, The O.C., Parts Unknown, and over 2,000 feature films, including offerings from the Warner Bros. archives, the Criterion Collection, and Hayao Miyazaki’s hallowed Studio Ghibli, in its first-ever streaming deal. All together, Max will have 10,000 hours of content for users to start streaming immediately, and there’s only more to come, starting with all of South Park next month.
Personally, I’d pay $15 for Studio Ghibli and Anthony Bourdain alone, and I doubt I’m the only one making a similar calculation. Max is the rare streamer to lead with legacy parts over shiny new objects. It’s a lesson learned from Netflix, which built on a leased library for years before pivoting to more costly originals (partly out of necessity, given the imminent rise of products like Max and Disney+). And it’s one still being internalized by more recent arrivals like Apple TV+, which just announced it will start acquiring outside titles after first concentrating on star-studded swings like The Morning Show. It’s much easier to capitalize on preexisting loyalties than to try and forge new ones from behind a paywall, and WarnerMedia is uniquely positioned to do the former. (And as an added recent bonus, older titles can’t have their production disrupted by a global pandemic.)
In light of everything else it has to offer, Max’s originals are almost an afterthought. At launch, they include just one scripted series: Love Life, an episodic rom-com anthology starring Anna Kendrick as another generically quirky New Yorker looking for The One. There are splashier releases to come, including a Gossip Girl reboot, a Seth Rogen vehicle, J.J. Abrams productions, and comedy specials. But Max’s in-house efforts are more noteworthy for their attempts to round out and complement HBO, building the brand out from a targeted niche into a big tent with something for everyone. For example, HBO, ground zero of the gritty Golden Age antihero, historically skews male. Many Max originals—ballroom competition Legendary, gentle parody The Not Too Late Show With Elmo—are marketed toward women and children. Max will inherit millions of subscribers from HBO, but it’ll need far more to meet its stated goal of 50 million domestic users by 2025.
But does it even make sense to use HBO as a starting point? After all, HBO Max is meant to showcase the full firepower of WarnerMedia, of which HBO is just a single part. More than that, it’s a part that’s spent decades carefully building a reputation on curation, selectiveness, and a general air of premium hauteur—precisely the opposite of Max’s shock-and-awe approach, which uses sheer volume as a cornerstone of its sales pitch. It’s important to note that HBO itself has been mandated to ramp up production as a means of staying competitive, while WarnerMedia executives have contrasted their hands-on oversight with Netflix’s laissez-faire firehose. But while the gap between “HBO” and “Max” is narrower than it might seem, it’s still a difficult one to bridge. And if Max doesn’t work, it may dilute the hard-won prestige WarnerMedia wants to jump-start its flagship, a process HBO itself would be powerless to stop.
Reilly, who has had a hand in such hits as The Shield, 30 Rock, and Glee, argues that Warner doesn’t have the same name recognition as a brand like Disney, while HBO already stands for “a lot of things that were positive” in the popular imagination. Still, those positive things are meaningfully different from the ones that distinguish an undertaking like HBO Max. The collision of the two is inevitably confusing. (It’s downright disorienting to see the HBO logo pop up against a light-purple backdrop, without the signature static-y sound effect.) But underneath all the noise, HBO Max has an awful lot stacked in its favor—and it’ll succeed if, and only if, it can get out of its own way first.
A previous version of this article stated that Comcast had yet to strike a deal with AT&T to carry HBO Max. On May 27, the day of HBO Max’s launch, the two companies came to an agreement.