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Dropping the 'HBO' Won’t Solve Solve Max's Problems

A history of the streamer’s past troubles, and a look at its uncertain future.
  • The new Max (Photo: Max)
    The new Max (Photo: Max)

    Three years since it originally launched, HBO Max has officially rebranded. However, the streaming service from the hundred-year-old company does not have the Warner name anywhere to be seen in its new moniker, nor the name of its flagship network or even the company that took it over. Instead, like my cat, it is now called Max. And, not unlike the first launch, today’s rollout has been a bumpy ride with consumers lacking basic information as to how the app will update or, better yet, when.

    So far, on launch day, some users report logging in and seeing their app auto-update as promised or being prompted to go download the update. Some have logged in only to see nothing happen, who then have to go download a new app and find themselves with Max and HBO Max side by side. Many reported the “Start Streaming” button doesn’t work, at least at first, and sometimes only on laptops but not on their TVs. One editor tweeted that the rollover wasn’t supposed to go live until 12:00 PM (ET? PT?), but there’s been no confirmation on that. Moreover, users who had successfully launched the updated app seemed to disprove that report.

    These latest stumbles cap off what’s been a rough decade for WarnerMedia, which started off 2013 still known as “Time Warner,” a moniker it had worn since the 1990 merger of the Warner and Time brands. The company has gone through two mergers since then, with its latest owner, Warner Bros. Discovery, bound and determined to rebrand yet again. Spinning off the Time brand in 2014 was only the beginning of a turbulent decade; two years later, it was purchased by AT&T, a deal that took until 2018 to be greenlit, just as the streaming wars were taking off.

    The new owners quickly abandoned the “confederation of niche streamers” model the company had only just built, with the likes of newly-launched Boomerang, FilmStruck, and DC Universe streamers abandoned for a Disney+-like all-inclusive streaming service. However, with others (like Apple) already ahead of them and going the “Production Studio+” route for their services, the company eschewed the obvious choice, Warner+, and named themselves after their foremost TV network: HBO Max.

    HBO Max's launch didn't go well, partially due to a pandemic robbing it of the flagship launch offering: a Friends reunion highlighting the company’s buyback of the 1990s-era hit. But the problems were obvious as far back as the initial July 2019 unveiling, from confusion over HBO Max vs. HBO Now vs. HBO Go to the failure to make a deal with Roku or FireStick to carry the service. At the time of the 2019 unveiling, HBO had 35 million subscribers, of which it converted 4 million to HBO Max in the first 30 days. But an underreported moment was the first question asked by an investor of the AT&T panel: Why would HBO Now users want to switch to HBO Max? The group on stage offered no answer, confused by the idea they had to sell the new service to people. The assumption was if they built it, people would come.

    The problem was in the name. Including “HBO” in the title, followed by frantically adding “HBO Max” to the end of every HBO trailer, made for brand dilution of extreme proportions. Viewers did not know if a show was available on HBO, HBO Max, or both; they weren’t sure if it would debut on HBO Max first on Fridays or on Sundays, or even what time they could regularly expect new episodes to be available.

    AT&T threw in the towel after only three years, selling Warner Media off to Discovery Networks in 2021 and letting Discovery’s CEO, David Zaslav, take charge. Zaslav is a conservative guy — Discovery+ launched very late, in January 2021, but when it did, he made sure it was a success by blitz-marketing it on every network it owned, and by the 90-day mark, the new platform had 13 million users. That’s more than HBO Max or Peacock managed in their first three months. The man can market when he wants to, which makes the decision not to simply admit defeat and go with “ProductionStudio+” as a name (in this case, WBD+) all the more baffling.

    Laugh at all the Pluses all you want, "Disney+" is elegant in that it tells you everything you need to know about the service at a glance; it’s the Disney Brand, “+” more. HBO Max never did that because it was never just HBO. But subtracting the HBO from the name, without replacing it with anything else, sends an unintentional message. The April 2023 announcement failed to address key points users need to know, like whether HBO programming is being removed en masse from the service or if, as existing HBO subscribers, they'll still get Max as part of their subscription.

    Zaslav’s people trumpeted that this was all in service of removing the highfalutin from the brand and making it down to earth. But once again, WarnerMedia’s streaming service finds itself at the mercy of those who do not have what’s best for its brand identity at heart. All the new service is doing is compounding the issues of the previous administration, just in the other direction. Moreover, the removal of “HBO” echoes Zaslav’s already growing reputation as someone who is taking away the things you love.

    From canceling movies and series to removing low-watched shows and cult favorites, Max no longer feels like a subscription service of endless content but one that ruthlessly culls the interesting and offbeat, a reputation only strengthened by the last-minute removal of even more titles the day before launch.

    Worse, it is continuing the legacy of bungling what is/was/probably will be secretly the best streaming service available. Zaslav claims that it’s because no one is watching anything beyond the top-level titles, saying during an earnings call, “Five shows are 90% of what people are watching on HBO Max; and if we take it to 20 shows, it's 98% of what people are watching." However, that’s not the fault of those shows no one is watching them. It’s because no one ever told consumers they were there.

    From the beginning, HBO Max had more solid content for your buck than any of its competitors. Though Warner Bros. may not be as well defined as Disney in the public mind, it has existed since 1923, and its ownership of the Turner archives meant it had more classic films from the silent era and the interwar period than anywhere else. Its movie division might have been led by DC Films, but it also has plenty of other modern hits, including the very lucrative Harry Potter, The Matrix, and Lord of the Rings franchises. Its TV archives had decades upon decades of Looney Toons and Hanna Barbera cartoons, plus old 1970s favorites like The Waltons, ’80s classics like A Christmas Story, ’90s sitcoms like Friends, and of course, everything HBO ever made, starting with Oz.

    Moreover, it made deals to bring over British TV shows like the current Doctor Who and Luther, grabbed Studio Ghibli while the going was good, and even scooped up South Park as Viacom and CBS bungled along in their merger. The sheer amount of content languishing on the service, never marketed, is like the Wonders of the Universe — a series Discovery has now added to the pile — almost too much to comprehend. (Professor Brian Cox could make an entire series on the streaming service’s offerings you never knew were there.)

    There are only so many times one can fail to bring that much good stuff to viewers and get them to pay for it before it becomes the only legacy you have. There are only so many rebrands and relaunches one company can make until the only one left is another “For Sale” sign on the Warner door.

    Ani Bundel is an entertainment writer covering everything from celebrities to movies to peak TV when she's not tweeting or Instagramming photos of her very fuzzy cats. Her other regular bylines can be found at PBS/WETA's Telly Visions, where she co-hosts a weekly podcast by anglophiles for anglophiles, CNN Opinions, and MSNBC Daily. 

    TOPICS: HBO Max, Discovery+, Max, David Zaslav, Warner Bros. Discovery