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HBO Max Review: A Strong Offering with Unlimited Challenges

HBO Max, WarnerMedia’s $4 billion project, debuted this morning. The latest player in the crowded streaming wars launched with over 10,000 hours of content, which includes HBO’s full library, classic Warner Bros. titles, Cartoon Network, and films from the DC Universe. HBO Max got a lot right but entered a world with little room for anything but groundbreaking.

HBO Max’s distribution tops any list criticizing the launch. Users of Amazon Fire and Roku will quickly notice they don’t have access to the app today. WarnerMedia was unable to debut its Netflix competitor on the two streaming platforms that make up 33% of the market share, per Parks Associates. This is such a colossal mistake as key platforms that it is available on, Apple TV and Google Chromecast, only make up 7%. Chris Willard, vice-president of communications for AT&T’s WarnerMedia, told USA Today there’s no update on when and if the streaming giants will offer HBO Max. A positive resolution could be difficult.

“The fissures between WarnerMedia and Amazon are complex and not easily resolved. By some estimates, Channels is responsible for roughly half of all HBO online subscriptions,” writes Janko Roettgers. “Amazon takes a cut of 30% to 50% for any subscription service it resells through Channels, according to multiple industry insiders. HBO is said to be on the lower end of that range, but that still leaves Amazon with an estimated nine-figure revenue share per year.”

Max is available on most smartphones and can be consumed on laptops, but neither are substitutes for the smart TV experience.

Max users will, however, enjoy the incredible library at their disposal. In addition to everything brilliantly created on HBO, there’s some of the greatest films ever made — Citizen Kane, Casablanca, Gone with the Wind; each episode of Friends and The Big Bang Theory, both of which are candidates for the Mount Rushmore of sitcoms; all eight of the Harry Potter films; recent movie releases; and a great offering of the superhero genre.

Of course, there is also the Lord of The Rings/Hobbit component. Though, that comes with a dangerous con.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy is HBO Max’s offset to Disney+’s Star Wars. Even if LOTR‘s fan base isn’t quite as massive, it’s immersed, wide-ranging, and defensive of the brand. Since DVD players were omitted from our living rooms, trips to Middle-earth have been limited. The historically great trilogy should see a resurgence via its new platform. And that’s the problem. However much WarnerMedia rebuilds the mystique around J. R. R. Tolkien’s creation, it’s bad news in the long run. It will tilt streamers toward its competitor, Amazon Prime, who paid $250 million just for the rights to debut a Lord of the Rings series. Imagine Disney+ launching the Star Wars library while Netflix is getting ready to debut The Mandalorian (I know, hard to even imagine). To make matters worse, it’s Amazon’s attempt to create “the next Game of Thrones;” a battle every service is involved in, including HBO with the upcoming prequel, House of Dragon. And Amazon has the distinct advantage of LOTR ending its film series on top, while Thrones‘ finale is still hated a year later.

My concern going into the launch was that Max would be a replacement for HBO/HBO Now, not its competitors. And HBO’s current users haven’t responded kindly to the pandemic. According to the New York Times, one in five people who subscribe plan to drop either HBO or HBO Now. That’s compared to only 7.4% for Netflix, 8.6% for Disney+, and Amazon Prime Video’s 1.2%. Thus, HBO Max is going to have to attract new users to make this a successful investment. The content isn’t the problem, it has that, it’s the challenges of entering the race last.

Are there enough of the 183 million Netflix subscribers, 63 million in the United States, looking to add another service? Additionally, will the many who subscribe to both Netflix and Disney+ opt for a third monthly bill?

Which brings us back to the à la carte scenario I’ve been talking about for weeks. Max’s more opportune lane is attracting the swinging streamers who bounce around services each month. Netflix remains hell-bent on releasing all of the episodes for a series at once. HBO can spread its next hit series out well beyond a month to get at least three $15 chargers from the à la carte subscribers. Even if Netflix is the current king of original content, I’m not betting against HBO to reclaim the title. To this day, it remains remarkable the level of dominance it has had with The Sopranos, The Wire, Game of Thrones, Deadwood, The Leftovers, Sex and the City, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Boardwalk Empire. Even if some of those were more favored with the critics, that’s the group that these subscribers align with.

HBO Max can also add the all-important interface to the win category. The fresh, easy to navigate look gets an A on both desktop and smartphone versions (not sure on a smart TV — see above). This is an area where Max can claim victory even over Netflix, which is due for an upgrade. The highlight is the option to select from the impressive content hubs à la Disney+:

HBO has long been able to make mistakes with a commanding lead over the competition. HBO Max doesn’t have that leeway. It’s going to have check off nearly every box as the streaming wars have entered a new stage of fierce competition.

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