HBO entered the world of streaming in 2014 with the launch of HBO Now, the first real direct-to-consumer option WarnerMedia gave to people who wanted HBO but didn’t want to spend money on cable packages. But with WarnerMedia’s focus shifting to its new streaming service, HBO Max, HBO Now’s future has become unclear — if it has one at all.
There will be a few different ways to subscribe to HBO in seven months, including two ways for cord-cutters: HBO Now and HBO Max. While the former has been a cornerstone for WarnerMedia’s (who owns HBO) streaming plans since it launched years ago, all focus is now on HBO Max. Parent company AT&T hasn’t announced any plans to combine the two streaming services, and the company told Fast Company in January that there are no plans to get rid of HBO Now. Still, things change. HBO Max was originally going to launch with three tiers, but that idea was later scrapped. (The Verge has reached out to WarnerMedia for additional comment.)
That puts HBO in a very interesting position. Not only is it competing with other streaming services, but it’s also competing with itself. It’s that incoming, overarching competition that gives people like Casey Bloys, HBO’s head of programming, anxiety.
“Obviously there’s a lot of competition,” Bloys told The New York Times on the night of the Emmys. “Clearly. It’s harder fought, and so it’s nice. It’s nice. I’m going to enjoy [HBO’s Emmy success] for one night, and then tomorrow I’m going to go back to anxiety and all the things that come with it.”
Right now, HBO Now is the only option available to people who don’t subscribe to the network through a cable plan. It costs $14.99 a month, and it offers the same shows and movies as the standard network. But in 2020, WarnerMedia is set to debut HBO Max. The new streaming service will include all of HBO Now’s content, but it will also have new original series and licensed favorites that are separate from the HBO channel. These shows, including Friends and The Big Bang Theory, will only be available under the HBO Max banner.
Early rumors suggest that HBO Max will be one of the most expensive streaming services to date. It can’t cost less than $15 a month, otherwise HBO Max would undercut HBO Now completely. Analysts think it will cost around $17 a month. A couple of dollars more might seem too close in price, but the increased fee does suggest to subscribers that HBO Max will carry more licensed and original content. Therefore, it has to cost more. It’s the same message Netflix sends when it increases subscription prices.
Approximately 30 percent of HBO Now’s 8 million subscribers have expressed interest in getting HBO Max, according to a study conducted by strategic firm HarrisX. It puts HBO and WarnerMedia in an interesting position as the streaming wars kick off. On one hand, having two streaming services allows WarnerMedia to take two bites out of the same apple. On the other hand, it sets up HBO Now to compete with HBO Max. If people can get more out of HBO Max than HBO Now for a similar price, why would anyone hold on to HBO Now?
“I would bet that at some point, maybe sooner rather than later, HBO Now will go away,” Jon Klein, former president of CNN and media expert, told The Verge. “I’m sure that there’s a plan for migrating those eight million [subscribers] into HBO Max at some point. They’ve got to be taking that very seriously.”
AT&T sees HBO Max as its chance to compete against major companies like Comcast, Apple, and Disney in the streaming wars. It’s also a Hail Mary pass for AT&T since its bet on entertainment media has resulted in an enormous amount of debt. That means there’s one crucial element a service like HBO Max has that HBO Now doesn’t: scale. Offering a Netflix-style variety of content packaged around the HBO name is the best chance of achieving that scale, instead of trying to prompt up one service around one channel.
Scaling with multiple products that are trying to accomplish one goal isn’t easy, as AT&T executive and WarnerMedia head John Stankey has said. “Can you be successful in media as three subscale businesses moving forward when all these companies are consolidating to get scale and play at scale? I don’t think so,” Stankey told The Wall Street Journal earlier this week.
If HBO Now disappears, as Klein predicts, WarnerMedia will be left with the tricky task of rolling HBO Now’s 8 million subscribers into a larger and fundamentally different service. Removing HBO Now possibly removes one of the cheaper methods of streaming HBO shows, and HBO Max’s cost may alienate some subscribers. But folding HBO Now will help HBO Max grow, which may be all AT&T cares about.
That’s also potentially why AT&T is increasing HBO’s content budget by 50 percent ahead of HBO Max’s launch. It’s an effort to get its most prestigious brand to produce more shows than ever to bring in more subscribers and justify costs. AT&T invested “more money in HBO because we believe it’s a mainstay cornerstone of what we’re doing going forward,” Stankey told The New York Times. Netflix similarly increases subscription prices sometimes, and executives often tout additional programming as a reason.
More HBO might sound good on the surface, but the prestige network built its reputation by focusing on curation and a collection of finely tuned shows. Increasing production by 50 percent and adding more shows might diminish the brand. It’s a facet of AT&T’s involvement in WarnerMedia that has led to people asking whether AT&T recognizes that it “shouldn't assume that HBO can make the jump from boutique to big box by simply pouring more money into programming,” as Variety noted. But whereas HBO Now was a place that simply housed HBO content, HBO Max is a platform that AT&T wants to use HBO to grow.
As Variety also notes, it “could be argued the brand presents impedes future growth because you can’t deliver high quality at high quantities.” HBO Now in its current form is tougher to grow because it’s exclusively HBO content. Using it as a counterpoint for a platform that will have new shows from the CW and the entire Friends collection seems to be more important than focusing on the 8 million people who subscribe to HBO Now. Stankey and executives at AT&T want HBO to continue making the series that win Emmys, but they want the team to do much more of it. Stankey previously told HBO employees that people don’t engage with the network on a daily basis, and that needs to change.
Essentially, HBO has to perform well and bring in subscribers — something HBO Now doesn’t do enough of compared to Netflix and Hulu. Bloys, like others in the industry, are increasingly concerned about incoming competition from new entrants in the streaming wars like Apple, Disney, and Comcast’s NBCUniversal. “I’m not going to say I’m not worried,” Bloys told the Times. “You can’t do this job without being worried. But I feel really good about the future.”
HBO Max might gobble up all the attention and focus of WarnerMedia and AT&T executives, but there’s still a place for now. It’s similar to Disney+ — not in scale or audience, but there is a culture around HBO’s brand. It’s defined itself over the last couple of decades as a place that generates thought-provoking, intelligent, groundbreaking television. There’s a value in a having a limited channel for subscribers, even if it’s only 8 million people. Like die-hard Disney fans, there are HBO devotees who, in the era of cord-cutting, could still get HBO for a reasonable price through HBO Now.
“That would be a big reason why they don’t want to simply announce that this entity that eight million people are loving is going away or changing,” Klein said. “Change is scary to consumers. But there’s probably a painless way to fly those existing subscribers into kind of a new and improved HBO Now, which is Max. It might very well be why they’re calling the new service HBO Max at all. HBO Max — it’s the same HBO Now you’ve been getting, only better. That’s how they have to sell it.”