HBO Max has a me-too problem.
No, not the hashtag type of #MeToo problem. Its problem is that it’s a me-too product at a me-first price.
The $15 a month streaming service, which launched on Wednesday, got off to a rough start, racking up fewer than 90,000 app downloads on launch day, well below the 3.2 million day-one downloads recorded by Disney+, and even below Quibi’s anemic 380,000.
Theoretically, of course, the launch converted some 33 million existing HBO Now subscribers into HBO Max subs overnight. But even that process ran into a significant glitch when AT&T failed to secure Max distribution agreements with Roku and Amazon Fire TV by launch day, which means that HBO Now users who subscribe through those two platforms, which together account for nearly 70% of all standalone set-top streaming devices, are not able to access either service.
People who subscribe to HBO through their cable or satellite providers can upgrade through those providers.
AT&T will, presumably, get its distribution problems sorted out at some point. The harder problem will be convincing consumers that they need to subscribe to HBO Max, especially when it costs more than nearly every other streaming service.
AT&T accelerated its launch plans for HBO Max in response to the coronavirus lockdown. But even so, it’s launching into a crowded streaming pool, with two very big fish — Netflix and Disney+ — already in the pond and a long list of pretty big fish — Amazon Prime, Hulu — and smaller fish — Acorn TV, BritBox, Apple TV+, Peacock — schooling behind.
It’s simply harder than it used to be to make a splash amid the crowd.
With the vast WarnerMedia catalog behind it, there is plenty of great content on HBO Max, from Warner Bros. movies, to Turner networks, to TV shows like “Friends.” But even Warner Bros. and Turner are not the sort of well-defined, differentiated brands that Disney+ boasts, with Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars and Disney itself.
The big brand hook for HBO Max, of course, is HBO. But HBO has been available as a streaming service for a while now, whether through HBO Go for cable and satellite subscribers, or through the standalone streaming service HBO Now. Anyone inclined to subscribe to HBO in the first place has long been able to subscribe.
For those who do subscribe to HBO already, HBO Max is a great upgrade. For everyone else, though, it’s a big bundle of content amid a lot of big bundles of content. Some of that content is iconic, like “Friends,” but with so many streaming services now available people have to make choices. And there are a lot of big bundles of content to choose from, most of which carry lower prices than HBO Max.
Part of the plan for HBO Max involves producing original content to attract new subscribers, and the streaming service boasts its own original programming unit separate and apart from the HBO network’s original production operation. That effort has unfortunately been set back by the production shutdown caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
But exclusive original content is now merely table stakes in the streaming game, and by raising the bet to $15 a month HBO Max may simply bluff itself out of the hand.
AT&T obviously believes it needs something big to show investors for the $85 billion it spent to buy Time Warner. But simply dumping everything into a single pot and calling it HBO may not be the best way to show it.
Many WarnerMedia assets, in fact, might have greater value on a targeted, standalone basis, rather than subsumed into a me-too bundle if they were licensed, or packaged and marketed correctly. Turner Classic Movies, for instance, or the MGM musical collection are potentially viable niche brands; DC films, Cartoon Network and Adult Swim could be as well.
Such a multi-niche strategy might not have the seeming throw-weight of a Netflix or Disney+ to impress analysts and investors. But it might impress more actual users over time.