Executives described a dizzying array of programming that nonetheless raises questions about whether it’s all enough. Ultimately, HBO Max’s fate will reveal whether a service with a lower consumer profile but a deep content well can still win at a streaming game in which branding is king.
“The entire HBO service bundled together with a large new offering of original content plus a choice slate of acquired library programming,” proclaimed Robert Greenblatt, chairman of WarnerMedia Entertainment and Direct-to-Consumer, in a presentation from the Warner Bros. studio lot in Burbank, Calif., before introducing a wide range of creators and show teasers.
AT&T chief executive Randall Stephenson later said: “This is not Netflix. This is not Disney. This is uniquely HBO Max.”
After making a number of executive moves earlier in the year under new owner AT&T, WarnerMedia in recent months has been releasing a torrent of content announcements. On Tuesday, the onslaught continued.
Most notable was that HBO has ordered “House of the Dragon,” a “Game of Thrones” prequel based on George R.R. Martin’s “Fire & Blood,” straight to series. Martin will co-create and executive produce.
Executives also said that “South Park,” the long-running hit on Viacom’s Comedy Central, would get a new “streaming home” at HBO Max. Episodes for the next three seasons will premiere on the service 24 hours after they air on regular TV. All 23 past seasons also will be available on demand.
“That’s pretty cool,” HBO Max chief content officer Kevin Reilly said, succinctly. The deal is possible because Viacom does not have a robust consumer streaming service in the way of other conglomerates.
The news led a long list of additions Tuesday that also included five stand-up specials to be overseen by in-house late-night host Conan O’Brien; development projects from Mindy Kaling and Issa Rae; a “Green Lantern” series “in space” from in-house blue-chip producer Greg Berlanti; a slate of new family shows involving Looney Tunes and Hanna-Barbera characters; a science-fiction series from Ridley Scott; and library shows like the first three seasons of “Rick and Morty.”
The offerings come in the wake of other deals announced steadily over the past few months. They include a return of the niche hit “Boondocks”; a wide range of documentary series; a number of shows from J.J. Abrams’s production company; all 21 of famed Japanese animation company Studio Ghibli’s animated feature films; a TV spinoff of “Grease”; a revival of “Gossip Girl”; and library hits such as “Friends” and “The Big Bang Theory.”
In part, the announcements reflect the nature of the streaming wars, in which the race is on to amass as many weapons as possible, without even knowing how they’ll fire or whom they’ll target. Some of the new shows seem aimed at specific competitors — the standup specials were a retort to Netflix, while the family series are a broadside to Disney — but many eschew specific strategy in favor of a general more-is-more approach.
The deals also are a way of keeping the company in the consumer consciousness. At a moment when Disney and Apple TV+ are marketing heavily — the traditional broadcast airwaves have been flooded with spots in the hope of converting those viewers — WarnerMedia wants to ensure it is not forgotten in the tumult.
But there is little way to know whether simply creating a wide array of shows — even if a number of them turn out to be hits — will bring in a lot of subscribers.
“A few great shows isn’t what makes a streamer successful — it has to scale,” said Dan Rayburn, an expert on streaming. “It also has to be simple and easy to use. And we’ve not seen anything yet from AT&T that demonstrates either of these things is true.”
Warner Media and AT&T executives touted all the additional content subscribers will get for essentially the same price as HBO. While that’s true, it remains hard to determine how much of this is additional content, as opposed to simply content ported over from elsewhere in the Warner empire. Many of the deals in the pre-streaming age might have found a home on TBS or TNT, networks Reilly long oversaw.
And while a number of properties, from “Joker” to “Sesame Street,” are high-profile, it also remains to be seen whether they’re enough to compete with the megaliths Disney will regularly roll out.
Nonetheless, WarnerMedia sought to make the case that it could hold its own with content heavyweights.
Greenblatt touted AT&T’s reach as one reason it could.
“When you live in a world of dragons, like Netflix, Amazon and Apple, it feels very good to have one of yours in the game,” said Greenblatt, the former NBC and Showtime executive who was hired by WarnerMedia earlier in the year.
“We simply couldn’t do this without a company of this scale behind us,” he added.
It remained unclear from Tuesday’s presentation how existing HBO customers would go about signing up for HBO Max — whether it meant a separate sign-up or simply rolling over from the traditional service. Warner Media executives did say traditional HBO will remain in existence after HBO Max, but it was unclear to many analysts why, or for how long, since for the same price consumers can get HBO Max.
The company said it expect 50 million HBO Max subscribers by the end of 2025, which would be an increase of about 50 percent from the 34 million HBO subscribers the company currently counts. AT&T chief financial officer John Stephens said the company expects about $5 billion in revenue by 2025; he did not offer a timetable for profitability.
Stephenson said that while he knew some skeptics thought “this story is complicated,” he felt the goal here was straightforward — “to give the world’s preeminent storytellers the technical and financial resources to go and build something really special.”
Executives also took a few veiled digs at the competition.
Greenblatt said HBO Max will “remove a lot of the filler no one watches anyway” and “never rely on algorithms to serve our customers the best programming,” both clear references to Netflix.
Reilly said HBO Max will have “the largest selection of recent blockbusters available on any streamer,” a claim Disney might contest.
The service’s goal has been different from those of competitors. Unlike other firms, WarnerMedia doesn’t have to persuade consumers to pay directly for content — they’ve already been doing that for HBO.
What the company needs to do is expand beyond the prestige realms of the pay-cable network, whose roughly 30 million consumers pale compared to Netflix, to Disney’s potential base and to the mass-entertainment direction streaming is believed to be going.
In short, the issue is whether a company that has been very good at getting hardcore TV fans to pay them directly every month can get a lot of other people to do the same.
“The question for HBO is can they take their direct relationship with their consumers and leverage that into something more like Netflix,” said Raj Venkatesan, a professor of business administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business who closely follows streaming. “A lot of consumers don’t have a relationship with HBO.”
The matter is further complicated, he said, because the brand is seen as more prestige than populist.
The larger play for AT&T also remains different — and in question. Netflix is driven by subscription revenue. Apple is trying to boost device sales and app usage. Disney wants to push merchandising and other products.
AT&T wants content to help persuade people to keep subscribing to its phone services.
“The business model is totally different — they’re trying to make sure subscribers don’t churn out of wireless,” Rayburn said. “And we’ve not yet seen evidence a streaming service will do that.”