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HBO Max Is Already Honing Its Identity

In the Streaming Wars, adaptability is a good skill to have

HBO Max/Ringer illustration

When HBO Max first launched in late May, critics and analysts spoke about it like cautiously optimistic realtors. The new streaming service from WarnerMedia had great bones, the logic went; it just needed to invest in some structural improvements to bring it up to its full potential. The catalog was solid, but what if subscribers could watch it on their Roku-powered TVs? An omnibus outlet for WarnerMedia’s many holdings made intuitive sense, but why was this one named after, but also creatively distinct from, a rarefied option like HBO?

Nearly three months later, HBO Max has successfully avoided the punch lines less sensible ventures like Quibi have attracted in spades. (Then again, WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar hasn’t been rewarded with a prime speaking spot at the Democratic National Convention; perhaps he ought to consider a pivot to bites.) At the same time, it also isn’t the runaway success of a juggernaut like Disney+, which breezed past its five-year subscriptions goal, now over 60 million worldwide, in just eight months. HBO Max’s gains are instead relatively modest: A July report put its activated accounts at just 4.1 million, a small fraction of the HBO customers eligible for a free upgrade and contributing to a small 5 percent increase of HBO’s total subscriber base compared to the end of 2019, from 34.6 million to 36.3 million.

But in the past few weeks, HBO Max has also demonstrated something most major launches backed by massive corporations have not: a willingness and ability to change what isn’t working, and double down on what is. Earlier this year, Apple licensed past seasons of Fraggle Rock after initial attempts to build a library from scratch, and Peacock had to figure out how to sell itself without the Olympics as a built-in marketing hook—but these small tweaks pale in comparison to the massive upheaval at HBO Max earlier this month. Bob Greenblatt and Kevin Reilly, the industry veterans most closely associated with HBO Max’s development and debut, have been pushed out of WarnerMedia entirely. In their stead, Casey Bloys—who’s been running HBO’s programming since 2016—will now run the new product that bears his original charge’s name.

The stakes of the overhaul were so high, the timing so sudden, and the reversal of approach it signaled so dramatic it naturally invoked HBO’s very own Game of Thrones. But once the shock faded (and the snarky analogies along with it), the move read like a correction for HBO Max’s most glaring flaw—the unclear relationship between a premium cable channel and a streaming service combining said channel, several others, and its own original series. Rather than being managed by two separate, independent, and maybe-kinda-sorta competing teams, HBO and HBO Max have now merged the top of their respective org charts.

Bloys’s promotion hasn’t magically fixed the coherence problem for befuddled consumers, but having the same executive ultimately responsible for both outlets allows for the kind of coordination that’s already implied by the branding. It also mitigates the risk that HBO Max could dilute HBO’s sterling reputation while HBO itself would be powerless to help. (Dilution is certainly still a risk, but if it happens now, at least it’ll be with input from HBO proper.) Most importantly, the executive shuffle signals a willingness on WarnerMedia’s part to adjust its strategy on the fly and acknowledge the writing on the wall, even as it’s relatively early in HBO Max’s tenure. A would-be Netflix competitor is simply too valuable of an asset not to manage carefully and closely.

Nor are all of HBO Max’s adjustments a response to negative feedback. The first major piece of programming news to break after the C-suite upheaval was HBO Max’s acquisition of two well-liked Comedy Central series entering their second seasons: Chicago sitcom South Side and showbiz satire The Other Two. The move follows some public hand-wringing over the fate of Comedy Central under the newly merged ViacomCBS, as a depleted creative team struggles to compete with supercharged hubs like Netflix. But for now, the channel’s loss is HBO Max’s gain—and also builds on an early success.

The best of HBO Max’s first few rounds of originals wasn’t Legendary, the once-controversial voguing competition that turned out to be a perfectly watchable riff on RuPaul’s Drag Race, or even Love Life, the Anna Kendrick rom-com swiftly renewed for a second season. Instead, it was the long-awaited third season of Search Party, the pitch-black millennial satire that began on WarnerMedia subsidiary TBS. Like The Other Two and South Side, Search Party wasn’t prematurely canceled in the vein of past rescue efforts by streaming services like Arrested Development. (The Comedy Central series had in fact already been renewed.) It was, however, frustratingly inaccessible to the very web-savvy young people who made up its target audience. If you make a joke about wedding hashtags (Search Party) or Instagays (The Other Two) and no one’s there to laugh, did it ever hit its target?

Creatively, the second life of Search Party has paid ample dividends. The latest season is the show’s best and most searing, an indictment of its protagonist and her cohort the story’s been building toward for years. (Not only is Alia Shawkat’s Dory spoiled and directionless; she now feels entitled to literally get away with murder.) It’s also easier to shotgun and screenshot than ever, thanks to its new virtual home. Search Party’s fate is a best-case scenario for the new Comedy Central transplants, whose former home has long lacked an in-house streaming partner (unless you count CBS All Access). The pickups are also a brand boost for HBO Max, and perhaps a more efficient way of targeting its stated target audience of millennial women than brand-new shows that have to compete for attention with Friends and Studio Ghibli. Search Party was already a part of the WarnerMedia extended universe, making the transplant more natural, but The Other Two and South Side suggest HBO Max is looking to apply the same playbook elsewhere.

Another recent highlight for HBO Max is also a result of on-the-fly adjustment, albeit on a more global scale. Selena + Chef is the platform’s take on a cooking show, filtered through the lens of pandemic-induced quarantine; launched last Thursday, the series documents the common experience of novice cooks learning to fend for themselves without restaurants to fall back on, plus the less common experience of being pop star Selena Gomez. Every episode is filmed remotely, with cameras set up throughout the kitchens of both Gomez and whichever celebrity chef is tutoring her via verbal instruction. It’s a simple concept, conceived and executed as a product of its strange, surreal moment.

Selena + Chef is not a direct result of HBO Max’s executive shuffle, nor does it build on an early success, like the absorption of The Other Two and South Side. It is, however, a neat example of a skill HBO Max has started to hone: adjusting on the fly. The pleasant surprise of Selena + Chef is how it takes logistical constraints in stride, even turning them into an advantage. Its own platform has shown promising signs that it’s willing to do the same. And in the Streaming Wars, that’s a useful skill to have.

An earlier version of this piece stated that Casey Bloys had been running HBO’s programming since the departure of Richard Plepler in 2019. Bloys has been running it since 2016.