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A Month in, HBO Max Remains a Confusing Mess

The new streamer still hasn't solved its identity crisis.
  • Wonder Woman was a centerpiece of HBO Max's launch advertising campaign, but it's slated to exit the service later this year.
    Wonder Woman was a centerpiece of HBO Max's launch advertising campaign, but it's slated to exit the service later this year.

    Since its launch on May 27, HBO Max has suffered from a series of missteps, setbacks, and just plain baffling business decisions. Even a month later, the question lingers whether anyone at HBO, WarnerMedia, or parent company AT&T has a clear vision for what they want the new streaming platform to be.

    This may not be the most bungled streaming launch of the year. At least HBO Max has content that viewers care about and will find worth paying for (unlike, say, Quibi). Nevertheless, subscribers and interested onlookers have been left confused and frustrated by the rollout.

    Chief among the issues is a branding identity crisis. According to the marketing, the platform is intended to be a consolidated repository for content from all branches of the WarnerMedia empire. Yet the name HBO Max plainly emphasizes the HBO brand above all others. And anyone who might assume that the "Max" part refers to Cinemax will quickly find that disproven by the total absence of original programming from the sister channel.

    Moreover, HBO already had two existing streaming platforms: HBO Go, the streaming outlet for cable TV subscribers; and HBO Now, for viewers who've cut the cable cord and exclusively access HBO through the internet. Until very recently, it was unclear whether HBO Max was intended to replace one or both of those, or coexist alongside them. It now seems evident that the end goal is to push everyone to HBO Max. AT&T has aggressively made deals with major cable and satellite providers such as Comcast, Spectrum, and DirecTV (as well as its own U-verse service) to allow HBO subscribers automatic access to HBO Max at no additional cost. In case any of those viewers either didn't get the message or are too apathetic to switch, news came earlier this month that HBO Go will be discontinued on July 31 and HBO Now will be rebranded as simply "HBO."

    That decision is problematic for a couple of reasons. Most distressingly, at the time of this writing the HBO Max app is still not supported by either Roku or Amazon Fire TV devices, which between them cover nearly 70% of the streaming media player market in the United States. If HBO Max still isn't available on these two devices come July 31, the company will leave the majority of existing HBO Go users high and dry. While it's easy to speculate that this move is just a cynical negotiating tactic to force Roku and Amazon to finally sign contracts with HBO Max, that outcome is certainly not guaranteed to happen before HBO Go shuts down.

    Further, the choice to shutter HBO Go first rather than HBO Now feels entirely backwards. Given that they both have the same $14.99/month subscription price, HBO Now (or just "HBO" as it will be called) is effectively redundant to HBO Max, which carries all of HBO's content. There's no need for the basic HBO app anymore if the streaming device supports HBO Max, and AT&T has already demonstrated that it doesn't care about devices that don't. If the actual intent is to consolidate HBO Go with HBO Now and start allowing cable subscribers to sign-in on the rebranded HBO app, that really needs to be clarified and confirmed as soon as possible.

    Content Confusion

    HBO Max launched with a promotional blitz emphasizing the huge wealth of content in the WarnerMedia catalog, implying that a vast library of film and TV titles from the 1920s to present would be available at our fingertips. In actuality, that's only partially true. As it turns out, a number of popular Warner properties are currently licensed to other streaming services. As a result, you won't find Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, The Matrix and its sequels, or any of the Lethal Weapon movies on HBO Max yet. You can get The Hangover Part II, but not the first or third entries. While the 1984 Supergirl movie is available, the CW TV series of the name is not, nor are The Flash, Arrow, or most of their sibling shows in the Arrowverse franchise. (Only Batwoman is present.)

    While select big-name classic films like Casablanca and The Wizard of Oz are accounted for, other classics from the Warner Archive Collection such as Gaslight, Out of the Past, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? didn't make the cut.

    HBO Max made headlines earlier this month when it temporarily pulled Gone with the Wind in order to add a disclaimer about racial stereotypes in the film, but other upcoming removals are troubling. DC's superhero movies were a centerpiece of the HBO Max advertising campaign, yet until this week, some big ones including Wonder Woman, Justice League, and Suicide Squad were scheduled to leave as early as July 1. After fans made a fuss, the service granted those titles a last-minute extension, but they're still leaving at the end of the year, and HBO Max confirmed that DC movies should be expected to rotate on and off the platform regularly.

    Older Batman flicks from Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher are still on the docket for a July 1 exit. In theory, you should be able to track impending removals using the "Last Chance" menu in the HBO Max app, but at present that menu currently only confirms Batman Returns and Batman Forever (ironically, not available forever). Only by specifically searching for Batman or Batman & Robin will you find an "Available until Jul 1, 2020" notation. (Incidentally, the HBO Max search function is not smart enough to find Batman & Robin if you spell it with an "and" instead of an ampersand.)

    HBO Max last chance menu

    Make no mistake, even with these removals, HBO Max still has a very large and impressive catalog to dig through. Still, learning that this catalog isn't stable and sections of it may come and go at various times is troubling for anyone who might subscribe expecting to have favorite titles at their regular disposal. Imagine if Disney+ pulled Star Wars after explicitly promising that franchise to subscribers.

    A Disorganized Mess

    All these frustrations are only exacerbated once you get into the HBO Max app and have to deal with its confusing menus that seem designed to jam as many disparate recommendations in your face as possible, no matter how mismatched. On my last visit, the Featured Movies included Crazy Rich Asians, Joker, and Alien vs. Predator. That's not a triple feature I'd ever choose to watch.

    Browsing menus don't go especially deep, and the critical content hubs that really ought to be stuck to the top of the page are instead only found after scrolling halfway down. Unlike Disney+, which is cleanly divided into five logical categories (Disney, Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars, and National Geographic), HBO Max has nine hubs to sift through, some of which feel redundant. No less than five of them are dedicated to animation labels, and probably could have been lumped together into a broader Animation category and then broken down from there. While this is obviously a consequence of WarnerMedia's many holdings vying for attention, it just feels like too much.

    HBO Max content hubs

    At the same time, some of the hubs are less than comprehensive. AT&T still maintains separate streaming platforms for DC Universe, Cartoon Network, and Crunchyroll, and would prefer that you subscribe to those for their full content catalogs. The sections within HBO Max are at best samples of each.

    The HBO hub takes prominence with the largest icon. Click on that and you're taken to what appears to be a port of HBO Go inside with its own labyrinthine menu system.

    Perhaps the most confounding of these categories is the Classics Curated by TCM hub, which seems to function as a catch-all for random stuff that isn't specifically owned by another label. The only sense of curation occurs in the browsing rows currently dedicated to musicals, westerns, cult movies, Charlie Chaplin, and so-called "Comedies for Cinephiles" (which has a few movies that aren't especially comedic). Go to the full A-Z listings and you'll find "classics" like Adventures in Babysitting, Armageddon, and Critters mixed in with the more highbrow offerings.

    Some important content doesn't fit into any of the hubs. The Harry Potter franchise (which almost didn't make the launch until AT&T wrestled the streaming rights back from Universal, at least temporarily) has a browsing menu above the hubs but doesn't belong to any of the nine central labels. Nor do the ten seasons of Friends, which will likely take up permanent residence inside the Featured Series menu.

    Raiding the Corporate Cupboard

    Another issue HBO Max has in common with Disney+ is a rather paltry selection of original programming. Both platforms are largely focused on catalog offerings with a smattering of new originals rolling out over time. Even as far as that goes, HBO Max doesn't yet have a breakout smash like The Mandalorian to lure subscribers. The highest profile Max Original is Love Life, a cute but insubstantial Anna Kendrick rom-com series.

    A new batch of shows premiere today, mostly comprised of titles pilfered from other outlets. The second season of Doom Patrol will stream simultaneously on both HBO Max and DC Universe, where it originated. Meanwhile, Search Party will jump ship from TBS and move entirely to HBO Max for its third season. The preschool animated series Esme & Roy will likewise leave HBO proper and become an HBO Max exclusive in its second season. After ten seasons on Cartoon Network, Adventure Time will continue on HBO Max with a string of special episodes called Adventure Time: Distant Lands.

    While it's not unusual for streaming services to pick up shows that were canceled by other networks, the difference in this case is that all of these series were relative hits in their original homes. Moving them to HBO Max feels like each has been forced to make a sacrifice for the greater corporate good. Production shutdowns related to the COVID-19 pandemic may have slowed down the introduction of other announced Max Originals such as Green Lantern and the Gossip Girl reboot, but this group of transitions were announced well before the crisis and were part of the HBO Max business plan all along.

    What Is HBO Max?

    Right now, HBO Max is essentially HBO plus a dumping ground for anything else AT&T feels like piling on top of it. The platform has no central identity, no theme, and little sense of organization. On the bright side, there is a mountain of content available, much of which is good and worth having, which can't be said for all of its competitors. Still, the current product doesn't make a particularly strong argument for why the corporation needed to create a third HBO streaming service. At the very least, wouldn't this be better branded as something like "Warner Max" rather than HBO Max? Even if nothing else were changed, a name like that would clue people in that there's something more to it than yet another place to get HBO.

    To be fair, Netflix also has issues with clutter and disorganization, but it has somehow cohered into a streaming powerhouse. Perhaps HBO Max can do the same. The main thing it will need to get there is a guiding vision. At the moment, it doesn't have one.

    Josh Zyber has written about TV, movies, and home theater for the past two decades. Most recently, he spent more than nine years managing a daily blog at High-Def Digest.

    TOPICS: HBO Max, HBO, Adventure Time, Doom Patrol, Friends, Love Life, Search Party