Today’s story is accompanied by a podcast with Elaine Low and Sean McNulty discussing the implications of today’s WBD presentation.
In the style of a good movie makeover montage, Warner Bros. Discovery swiveled the salon chair around at its much-anticipated press event on Wednesday and unveiled a brand new look for flagship streaming service HBO Max: new name, new colors, new tech, and of course, splashy new titles to draw in more paying subscribers. (It’s called Max, it’s blue, it boasts more personalization and less buffering, and we’re in for a veritable decade of a rebooted, live-action TV version of Harry Potter.)
In similar fashion to Disney’s big Disney+ launch press event almost exactly four years ago, Warner Bros. Discovery laid out its plan of attack in the direct-to-consumer space. For those of us invited to the studio lot to watch the presentation in person, WBD made sure to remind the gaggle of journalists that this studio wields both history and flash (and The Flash): actual tour guides drove the trams carrying the press past the Warner Bros. water tower; passed French toast hors d'oeuvres awaited inside. Not to mention years’ — and years’ — worth of franchises to bring out of hibernation.
The messaging was remarkably clear-eyed and succinct (with occasional shade thrown at the competition). Among the topics:
Kids and family content is… back?! Apparently yes!
JK Rowling’s new Harry Potter HBO series will be at Game of Thrones’ “scale or higher” in terms of spend.
The WGA strike looms large. “For this industry to succeed, everybody needs to feel fully valued and start to finish. I think our objective would be that everybody gets fairly compensated for the work that they do,” said CEO David Zaslav, though he is “assuming the worst from a business perspective.” Ouch.
Streaming is in its messy teen years, according to WBD streaming chief JB Perrette, and consumers are in an era of “peak confusion.”
On that last point, Perrette noted that HBO Max and Discovery+ had “important shortcomings” and “needed to do the basics much better.”
That means tweaking a lot of the technical minutiae. Make it easier for viewers to discover new shows and movies, resolve billing issues, and speed up video start and navigation response times, for instance. (Anyone who has ever had their HBO Max suddenly die on them knows the tech could use some, er, love.) Discovery — as in “finding new stuff to watch” and not the company itself — has been problematic. WBD revealed that 75 percent of HBO Max’s viewership came only from its home screen, while Discovery+ users dig deeper to watch more content.
There was also a cavalcade of project reveals, from Colin Farrell’s The Penguin to Chip and Joanna Gaines’ Fixer Upper: The Hotel to Game of Thrones prequel A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms: The Hedge Knight. The theme tying together many of these announcements, of course, is that they are all part of greater franchises drawn deep from the combined Warner Bros. and Discovery wells as the company looks to make the most of its catalog of IP.
Ideally, come May 23, when the platform relaunches, Max should be a more user-friendly product with a hearty pipeline of things to watch and things to wait for with bated breath, and that should reduce churn and grow subscriber figures. Or as Zaslav said simply from the blue stage on the lot, “We're going to drive free cash flow, and we're going to invest in great stories.” A very 2023 corporate mantra for Hollywood.
What’s in a name?
Zaslav and his team certainly appear to value and appreciate creative content more than, say, the telecom execs preceding them who once referred to programming from HBO and other storied franchises as “bits in pipes” (to hear one former staffer tell it). And he reiterated that WBD is purely a “content company.” Taking a small jab at competitors that are housed within larger entities, he noted that “there's a lot of companies that are in a lot of businesses. This is the only business that we're in.”
Still, nixing “HBO” from “HBO Max” isn’t quite the same as Justin Timberlake’s Sean Parker telling Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg to drop the “the” from “The Facebook” in The Social Network. It’s a brand that is arguably the most valuable and recognizable in television today, the one that still drives appointment viewing in an age of on-demand watching, the one that remains a standard bearer for Prestige TV.
But it also appears to be limiting. In studying consumers who weren’t spending time exploring the platform, Perrette found “proof that only a certain portion of really, largely, the HBO fans are coming to the service.”
“We think there is a lot more opportunity, because we see a product that basically catered to largely an HBO fan base, and largely a nonfiction unscripted fan base. When you put these two together, and you have all the breadth of content, we can really go after the whole household,” he added. “And so those numbers are meaningfully bigger than what we are today.”
(Interestingly, in the room, certainly a more HBO-friendly coastal demo, the presentation of new reality shows from WBD’s U.S. Networks head Kathleen Finch, elicited little reaction from the audience.)
A renewed focus on kids and families
Outside of its library of Sesame Street episodes, HBO doesn’t exactly scream “kid-friendly programming.” So it was notable that part of Wednesday’s big presentation involved renewed attention to the kids and family market just as Max phases out the part of its name known for dramatic displays of blood, guts and sex.
“We had almost no children,” said Zaslav. “Not a lot of people said — you know, moms or dads on the way out say to the babysitter — ‘Oh, just put on HBO Max for the kids.’ But now, we spent a lot of time on that because we have an entitlement there. We have great kids content, from Sesame Street to Harry Potter to Looney Tunes, Hanna-Barbera, all the original content that Kathleen [Finch] produces, Cartoon Network. But there wasn't an entry point.”
Still, kids viewership is a notoriously tough nut to crack. Disney+ commands a robust lead, for obvious reasons, but even big spenders such as Netflix have encountered challenges in becoming a TV destination for children. Look at Nielsen’s Top 10 on any given week and you’ll see Cocomelon, an acquired property with an existing fanbase, is the property that has shown the most returns for Netflix despite its untold investments in original kids and family programming.
WBD’s hurdle now will be in reminding its younger consumers — and their parents — of the massive arsenal of cartoons and superheroes in its archives. (An archive that is noticeably slimmer, however. Perhaps awkwardly, one of the stage backdrops briefly featured animated series Summer Camp Island, a series that was abruptly yanked from the streamer some months ago, much to its creator’s vocal dismay.) Part of Max’s reinvention as a place for kids will come in the form of fresh versions of classic Warner Bros. characters.
“We're not only going to reboot a lot of what we already have in our library, but we're also going to make new,” said Finch. “It's a way for us to really target the kids market in a way that HBO hasn't been able to because as you've heard here today, HBO is not a kid-friendly brand necessarily, even though Warner Bros. has some of the best kids IP in the business.”
Protecting the crown jewels
Of course, the counterargument is that “Max” by itself is a bit, well, generic.
“It’s a mistake for a few different reasons,” one former high-level streaming exec mused to me about the name change prior to the event. “You don’t want to devalue the HBO name by putting reality under the same banner, but at the same time it loses its primacy… Put aside the fact that the name Max is so meaningless, it’s absurd. What is HBO? It’s something that is fading away.”
The company takes a different view.
“What I am most concerned about is protecting the HBO brand,” said HBO and Max originals CEO Casey Bloys, who has been with the premium cabler for nearly 20 years. He added, “It is not designed to take on everything in library or in a streaming service. It's just not designed to do it. It could — you could stretch it, but then you're losing what HBO stands for. I think it's what's best for the HBO brand in the long term.”
And as he aptly noted: “The same people who are concerned today about taking HBO out of the name, in a lot of cases are the same people who were outraged that HBO was put in the name in the first place.”
As with any major change, folks will likely gripe for a while and then get used to it, as they did with
The Facebook, or any other app they’ve developed a parasocial relationship with. The most telling sign of acclimation will come over the next year or so, when WBD gives investors updates on Max’s subscriber growth as it continues to search for somewhere around $4 billion in cost cuts while scaling up its streaming base.
But taking the tram back from the soundstage to the parking lot, past the tourists on a studio tour who were milling around the iconic Friends fountain and orange sofa, was a reminder of the depth of the magic of Warner Bros. alone, which now comprises only half of an enormous content empire. Fans may need to be reminded of what’s buried in the back catalog of Max, but once there, they may be happy to welcome Potter and the rest into their streaming stable.
Bonus: Sean McNulty will have more thoughts in tomorrow’s The Wakeup newsletter.