HBO Max’s Biggest Competitor: HBO

Tara Lachapelle
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HBO Max’s Biggest Competitor: HBO

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- HBO Max launches in just two days, and it has the potential to be one of the best streaming-TV apps out there. The only problem is, consumers don’t seem to have a clue what’s on it. 

In a poll earlier this month conducted by Morning Consult and the Hollywood Reporter, some 2,000 U.S. adults were asked to choose from a list of TV shows and movie titles which ones they think will be available on HBO Max, a new Netflix-like service being introduced by AT&T Inc.’s WarnerMedia division. The results should worry company executives:

As the chart shows, hardly any of the respondents knew that HBO Max would be the exclusive streaming destination for the hit sitcoms “Friends” and “The Big Bang Theory” — highly sought-after content rights that WarnerMedia reportedly spent more than $900 million to secure for the new service. It also wasn’t apparent to the survey takers that DC Comics films and “Sesame Street” would reside on HBO Max.

HBO has stood as a force all its own for so long that most people just don’t realize it shares a parent company with Warner Bros. studios and other TV networks, such as Cartoon Network, TBS and Turner Classic Movies. That’s too bad since the same poll showed that the inclusion of such content would make many consumers more likely to subscribe. The most telling response, though: Most of the people polled didn’t even think that “Game of Thrones” — the premier series of HBO’s entire 47-year history — would be accessible through HBO Max, even though it has “HBO” in the name.

 Consumers can be forgiven for the confusion. Americans’ experience so far with streaming-TV apps is that nothing is intuitive and everything is hard to find. For example, it’s not like ESPN+ is a digital replica of regular ESPN; it’s a different product entirely. And for years “Friends” has been available on Netflix, so young people may only know it as a Netflix show. Without being aware of HBO’s ownership and WarnerMedia’s recent dealmaking, there’s no obvious reason Central Perk would be on the same block as Sesame Street, around the corner from Westeros on the streaming continent of HBO Max. To make matters more confusing, streaming regular HBO (through the HBO Now app) and signing up for HBO Max costs exactly the same — $15 a month.

Disney+, which has signed up more than 50 million users since its November launch, doesn’t share HBO Max’s branding conundrum. The only thing survey takers seemed to know for sure is that “The Mandalorian” isn’t part of HBO Max. And that’s probably because Walt Disney Co. has so successfully reestablished “Star Wars” as a Disney property, even though it has only owned the franchise since 2012. The same goes for Pixar and Marvel. It’s for that reason that the biggest hangup of Disney+ — being so narrowly focused on superheroes and kid-friendly programming — can also be a strength. 

The biggest challenge for other streaming services may be building loyalty when viewers aren’t quite sure what to expect. The move away from appointment viewing on cable TV means that while we’re loyal to particular series and trilogies, we don’t necessarily know (or care) what networks or studios they’re tied to. 

For WarnerMedia, there’s still certainly a powerful advantage in continuing to use the HBO name for its new product — right away it tells people to expect great content (and hopefully that quality isn’t sacrificed while trying to keep up with the Netflix production factory). At the same time, it makes it difficult and costly to educate consumers on what HBO Max even is. That’s especially true when some of its content is temporarily licensed from its very competitors, such as Disney’s “The Mighty Ducks” and “X-Men: Dark Phoenix,” thanks to distribution deals that predate the streaming wars. (Remember, “X-Men” is Marvel, not the DC Extended Universe.)

HBO Max could give other apps a run for their money. But how do you easily explain that it’s just like regular HBO, but it has all this other stuff you’ll probably like as well, yet it doesn’t cost anything extra? Good luck fitting that into a compelling advertisement.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tara Lachapelle is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the business of entertainment and telecommunications, as well as broader deals. She previously wrote an M&A column for Bloomberg News.

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