In the end, it still all comes down to Friends. Nearly a year ago, WarnerMedia clinched the rights to the 1990s sitcom in a deal reportedly worth $425 million. The plan at the time was to nab the show from Netflix, where it had amassed legions of new fans, and bring it to WarnerMedia’s new streaming service, HBO Max. Suffice it to say, a lot has happened since then.
Friends officially left Netflix at the beginning of 2020, and a little more than two months later the coronavirus pandemic hit, claiming thousands and thousands of lives, costing millions their jobs, and forcing millions of others to stay inside for safety. In the months since, Friends has been one of the most watched shows in America, despite the fact that it’s not freely available on any major streaming service. With the launch of HBO Max today, that’s changing.
As you’ve likely surmised, this couldn’t be coming at a better time. Although some states are easing their Covid-19-related stay-at-home orders, many people are still staying put, scrolling and browsing for TV shows and movies to watch. This might explain why anyone launching the new HBO Max and searching for Friends might see a small tag that reads “The wait is over.” It also may be the worst time to launch a streaming service. Unemployment in the US is at nearly 15 percent, and adding another monthly expense, especially one that costs $15 per month, may seem extravagant. Not to mention that the last streaming media service to launch—the mobile-only venture Quibi—has struggled to gain traction, something cofounder Jeffrey Katzenberg blamed squarely on the coronavirus in an interview with The New York Times. What’s more, another streaming service, NBCUniversal’s Peacock, is scheduled to go live on July 15.
Which brings us to the other hurdle HBO Max now faces: market saturation. Generally speaking, American households have accepted that they’ll need two or three streaming services to be able to watch what they want to watch, but at some point all of them have to do a cost-benefit analysis. All told, HBO Max—which combines a wide variety of assets owned by WarnerMedia, from Warner Bros. films and the Criterion Collection to, yes, HBO—has about 10,000 hours of content. That’s indeed larger than the roughly 3,300 hours of content on Disney+, but is a pittance next to Netflix’s 36,000 or Amazon’s 63,500 hours.
HBO Max, though, does have a toehold here—lots of folks are already HBO cable subscribers (and HBO Go users) or have HBO Now subscriptions. These customers now have access to HBO Max and will likely spread the word, and Sarah Lyons, WarnerMedia’s head of product experience, notes that customer sentiment indicates families want more things to watch together. “There were many, many discussions on ‘Is this the right time? Should we wait? Should we stay on track? Are users going to think we’re taking advantage of them, or are they going to be happy about us giving them additional content to watch?’” she says. “We decided to stay the course.”
This is likely a smart move. In addition to all those HBO customers, WarnerMedia also has the muscle of its parent company, AT&T, which has pledged to invest $4 billion in HBO Max over three years and has a large customer base of its own. (Certain AT&T customers are getting the streaming service for free starting today.) It doesn’t hurt that HBO Max also looks slick as hell. The profiles are well-designed, and there are special “hubs” for the service’s big-name content, like Studio Ghibli, Adult Swim, and DC movies. Considering some folks are still confused about what, exactly, HBO Max is, and what content lives on it, these features should help. They also make the service feel more like a platform, a place for cord-cutters to go that kinda feels like, well, cable. (It’s worth noting that not all devices will have HBO Max at launch. Apple devices, Google Android devices, PlayStation 4s, Xbox One consoles, and many Samsung smart TVs will have access to the app at launch. WarnerMedia is still working on deals with Roku and Amazon for Fire TV devices.) This robustness, as well as the ability to handle millions of subscribers, is key, says Omdia online video analyst Tony Gunnarsson. “The assumption is that this is a platform built for the future,” he adds. “It’s what all services that are around today should be doing right now.”
But back to that question of content. The library HBO Max has today may be robust, but if the streaming wars have proven anything, it’s that every service needs its own originals. HBO Max has quite a few of those in the can, including the Amy Schumer documentary Expecting Amy and the Anna Kendrick rom-com Love Life. It’s also announced some highly anticipated projects, like the forthcoming Zack Snyder cut of Justice League—but Covid-19 has stalled many productions, including 30 projects HBO Max had in the works. (A planned Friends reunion special is also on hold.) Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer, told analysts in a conference call last month that “our 2020 slate of series and films are largely shot,” adding that the pandemic shouldn’t affect the company’s rollout of content through the rest of the year. HBO Max isn’t launching with quite as many originals as expected.
All of which leaves one other coronavirus-related question unanswered: What happens when the pandemic is over? Traditionally, summer is a fallow period for streaming services—comparatively few people sign up during the time of the year when they’re likely to be traveling or spending time outside. Having prospective customers on lockdown could be a boon for HBO Max, but what happens when everyone can leave their living rooms freely and safely? “I get that question every day,” Gunnarsson says. “I don’t really know the answer to it.” But, he adds, chances are they’ll stick around. “We’re seeing a spike in people signing up to streaming services, and that’s because of the crisis. My gut feeling tells me we’re not going to see a mass exodus in the summer.”
In other words, HBO Max and other streaming services aren’t going anywhere. Pandemic or not, they’ll be there for you.
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