Skip to main content

The head of HBO Max on launching without Roku, adding 4K HDR, and the Snyder Cut

An interview with AT&T’s Tony Goncalves on The Vergecast

Share this story

Photo illustration by William Joel / The Verge | Photo by Rich Polk / Getty Images for Xandr

HBO Max is AT&T’s big bet on the future of streaming, and it’s up to Tony Goncalves to pull it off.

Goncalves is the CEO of AT&T’s Otter Media division, the group that’s responsible for the HBO Max streaming service. He’s been in and around AT&T for decades, led the launch of DirecTV Now, and was part of the group that made the case to buy Time Warner.

We talked to Goncalves the day after HBO Max launched, and while he wouldn’t reveal subscriber numbers, he did tell us that HBO Max is basically an expanded version of HBO Now. It’s the same core tech, and most people with HBO Now saw the app update itself to HBO Max — that is, except for people on Roku and Amazon devices because AT&T hasn’t come to terms with them yet. Goncalves explained the dispute, told us how he plans to simplify the range of HBO services over time, and offered a vision of streaming services as “super-networks” that curate content for people.

There’s tons more in the full interview: Goncalves talked about simplifying the confusing menu of HBO services over time, adding 4K HDR and Atmos, resolving the dispute keeping HBO Max off the Roku and Amazon platforms, and, of course, the Snyder Cut. Listen to the whole thing, or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Nilay Patel: HBO Max launched yesterday [May 27th]. Are you going to change your title to “CEO of HBO Max”? It feels like you should be out there like, “I’m the CEO of HBO Max.”

Tony Goncalves: Otter Media is still a thing. It’s a digital-first fan-centric media company, and that’s essentially what HBO Max is. It’s leading digital for a company like WarnerMedia, and it’s about serving fans. I spend very, very little time thinking about my title. I just like being close to the metal with the team that makes great stories, builds great products, and puts them out in the marketplace. You can call me janitor for all I care.

NP: We’ve got to title the podcast episode something. So if that’s what you want, we’ll go with it.

Before we started, just a minute ago, I was joking with you that you haven’t done a lot of podcasts or videos or stuff like that. Give people your backstory. You’ve been in and around AT&T, DirecTV. 

I’ve been around the AT&T companies for longer than I probably would like to admit, but I’ve been in this industry also a little longer than I’d like to admit. I was at DirecTV for a good chunk of time, had a number of jobs [and] roles there. When AT&T came knocking to acquire the company, I was running the digital products group. So I was essentially charged with transitioning a satellite pay TV operator into the modern world of digital and mobile content aggregation and delivery.

I’d be lying if I told you that I was excited to come along for the ride when AT&T came along. But given the work that I was doing, and the platform that AT&T was, and the vision that John Stankey and Randall Stephenson had to bring connectivity and content together, I jumped on board, and man, I have just never looked back. 

When I was at DirecTV, I spent five years trying to build DirecTV Now, trying to take the company over the top. It took me five months at AT&T to make that pivot, which, ultimately, is what led to a moment like yesterday with HBO Max.

So I did that for a bit. I was the head of strategy. Sat along John [Stankey] for a bit of time. Worked on the vertical integration strategy to get into the content space. I oversaw the investment in Otter Media, and, at the right time, took the helm of that business and turned it from — it was essentially a set of venture investments — into an operating company. Then, last year, John called and asked if I’d be interested in taking the charge and taking the lead on HBO Max. I was ecstatic and giddy. So here we are.

NP: HBO Max, the streaming service, is part of Otter Media, inside of AT&T. You’re the CEO of Otter Media. That reports up into the larger WarnerMedia portfolio, which reports to AT&T. That org chart is — I think most people don’t see it, but your group is in charge of HBO Max, the service.

Yeah, I report into WarnerMedia Entertainment, which is Bob Greenblatt’s division inside of WarnerMedia. I’m overseeing the portfolio of Otter Media companies as well as the development and launch and the business operations of HBO Max.

NP: AT&T is just such a big company, and there’s many, many names. I want to make sure people get a sense of your responsibility. That said — [HBO Max] launched yesterday. Congratulations. That’s always exciting. How’d it go?

I’ve been around launches of new products for a long time. I’ve done a few. I’ve seen the good, I’ve seen the bad, I’ve seen the ugly. Yesterday was a pretty incredible day. We launched a product, I think seamlessly, and we put an incredible volume of great stories in front of consumers. The passion and engagement that we’re seeing around the content offering is incredible. All in all, we had a great day yesterday. The team had a great day. The company had a great day. The ink is dry on chapter one, and we’re having to start writing chapter two now.

NP: On launch day, how are you spending your time? Are you just watching a dashboard of signups? Are you on the phone? Are you just watching old episodes of Aqua Teen Hunger Force

Success in an organization is when you build systems under which people take the helm and run with something of this order of magnitude. You spend a long time organizing and putting people in seats and laying out priorities and building process to enable a seamless launch.

I love being in the engine room. I love being close to the metal, but obviously, the environment we’re in right now doesn’t allow for physical war rooms to be part of the launch plan. We had to virtualize just about everything.

So I spent a good amount of the last couple of days on calls, just ensuring that folks had the resources that they needed to go. And then on Slack channels watching the activity, and again, supporting the team when they needed to be supported, and getting out of the freaking way when they didn’t need anything from me. Monitoring a Slack channel, or two, or three, and just watching the team hit go on X platform, hit go on Y platform, identifying issues and quickly resolving them. That’s how I spent probably my last 24 hours or so.

Julia Alexander: You’re officially in the streaming war space in the way that, even DirecTV Now wasn’t in, in many ways. By this time in November 2019, after the day one launch, Disney had come out and said, “We hit 10 million subscribers.” They were very happy with that. I know Stankey the other day said, “We’re not trying to compete with Netflix. We’re not trying to compete with Disney.” But the level of success tends to be measured now with subscriber numbers.

And I know that you can’t give them to us unless you would very much like to give them to us, but I’m interested to know where your levels are in terms of people coming on as new customers, versus people rolling in from HBO Now subscriptions and through their own cable packages that you have partnerships with.

We’re not in the place to reveal numbers, though I think it feels to me like you’re going to ask me that a couple of times today.

NP: It’s on here easily six times.

[Laughs] Early, early, early, early innings. You referenced “streaming wars” a couple of times in that question. I have to tell you, I just have a very different perspective of that term. I think it’s largely a misnomer. We’re not at war. We’re just in a period of change in how consumers engage with content. I like to think about it as we’re in a period of reaggregation of content, and you’re seeing these super-networks emerge.

“We’re not at war. We’re just in a period of change in how consumers engage with content.”

It doesn’t look that different than when broadcast TV launched when you had a few television channels, networks that aggregated content, delivered it over broadcast. We’re in a position now where content is being aggregated at a much, much larger scale, in and around these incredible brands, and delivered over the internet. And so, there’s room, I think, for more than one. It’s not a zero-sum game. It’s not a winner-take-all. I really think we’re in a period of super-networks are emerging, and it’s great for consumers.

JA: It is fair to say, though, that you are currently at war with Roku and Amazon. In many ways, it’s a reverse carriage dispute, where these aggregators now have a lot of power because people are using them to watch the streaming services. That’s why Disney made an 11th hour deal with Amazon.

Obviously, you guys did an 11th hour deal with Comcast yesterday. Stankey has pretty much said Amazon is probably not going to happen right now. Roku is the obvious question. He did insinuate at a recent conference that that partnership was coming. 

When is that coming? It was funny yesterday, seeing Roku trending above HBO Max because people were like, “How do I watch this on Roku?”

Being available on the platforms that consumers use to access these new networks is really, really important. There are certain business models that exist, and we each have our own.

I just go back to the fact that we’re just ... I think we’re just starting from a very, very different place. We have 30-plus million existing subscribers that have already gone in their pocket and voted to subscribe to a product, and we’re making that product better. We think the value prop is there. We just want to be treated fairly.

Disney Plus and Netflix and Hulu and these other apps are on those platforms. There’s a certain business model that exists. We just want the same one. I’m hopeful that, ultimately, we’ll get there, and we’ll get there with the consumer in mind. But we just didn’t get there on day one.

JA: Have those 30 million subscribers you mentioned automatically upgraded? Because it feels like that’s the obvious upgrade. Max should launch with 30 million because that’s a customer base you’re already rolling up. Are you seeing that translate 100 percent?

That was the second time you asked about numbers.

NP: I shouldn’t have told you it was six. 

[Laughs] I’m not in a place to go into the details on the numbers. But we can do the math in and around how many HBO subscribers have access to the product. We think we’ve got a compelling content offering. It’s just not a sprint. It’s going to take time, and we’re excited about the journey.

NP: Roku makes almost no money selling hardware. They make all of their money taking a cut of in-app purchases, running ads, all that kind of stuff. Are you saying that the deal that Netflix and Disney get on the Roku platform — they’re not offering you the same deal? Or that you want a better deal than Netflix and Disney got for in-app purchases, signups, all that stuff?

I don’t know what specific deals others have with either Roku or any of the platforms, but I know the deal we have with Apple. I know the deal we have with Google. I know the deal we have with the other platforms. There’s a certain business model, and we’re happy to pay people to help us acquire subscribers. Again, it’s a pretty standard way of doing business.

“We’ve put together a product offering that has multiple Snyder cuts.”

I don’t want to get too deep into the details of the impasse that we’re in right now. But there’s a pretty standard way of bringing these apps to market on these platforms. That’s what we’re focused on doing.

NP: Are you’re just going to hold out until the Snyder Cut hits, and then an army of DC fans are like, “I want this on my Roku,” and they have to cave? Because that’s what happened with Fox and the Super Bowl. At some point, Fox just had to cave and give Roku subscribers the Super Bowl. Are you saying eventually that the demand is going to be so high that Roku is just going to have to cave?

I don’t know if caving is actually the way to think about it. I think the consumer wins at the end of the day, and I think we’ve put together a product offering that has multiple Snyder cuts. It’s got—

JA: [Laughs] Is that a positive or a negative that there’s multiple Snyder cuts?

The reference to the Snyder Cut is that it’s a passionate fandom. There’s a passionate fandom around Friends. There’s a passionate fandom around Harry Potter. There’s a passionate fandom around... I mean, you name it on that platform. The DC library. There’s a passionate fandom around Crunchyroll, passionate fandom around Studio Ghibli.

JA: There is a difference, though, between the fandom around the Snyder Cut, which has targeted a lot of directors who have worked with Warner Bros., has targeted groups on Twitter.

And although there’s positives of that fandom, there are a lot of overwhelming negatives, which many smart critics have written about. There’s a difference between that fandom and a Friends or a Harry Potter [fandom], which hasn’t necessarily gone out of their way for three years to demand certain things in the kind of way that the Snyder Cut fandom has. And I wonder if you worry at all about the precedent that sets. Because right after that came out, there started, “We’re going to get an Ayer cut for Suicide Squad — a David Ayer cut.” And I genuinely wonder if that was something that WarnerMedia took into consideration. What is the precedent that this sets?

Look, definitely not a precedent. 

And you’re right. There’s different types of fandoms. There’s the fandom you just described, and there’s other fandoms. My reference to the fandoms is the fact that we’re in a space where consumers are loud. Consumers guide, and we absolutely have to listen as industry. I had a boss that once said, “Industry and consumers aren’t always aligned, but consumers do tend to win.” It’s a fine balance. And I think when it comes to video, when it comes to entertainment, when it comes to content, consumers have never had more choice, and they’ve never had more of a voice. But that doesn’t mean that we will go and invest our dollars in every single fandom that exists.

But I think the reference to the Snyder Cut and the Friends fandom is the fact that consumers are speaking, and we have to listen. It doesn’t mean that we’re going to go redo every movie ever made. But I think that we definitely have to have our ear to the ground. And I think we do. 

I just go back to look at the buzz that the Harry Potter library brought us yesterday. It was a wonderful surprise and delight. It’s because consumers are passionate about these franchises.

NP: Not to over-compare it to Disney, but when Disney Plus launched, there was similar buzz with, “Oh my gosh, here’s all the Star Wars movies.” And then another thing that I heard, particularly in the nerd world I live in, was, “Wow, I can watch all the Star Wars movies in 4K HDR with Atmos.” They got remastered for streaming. You can deliver them at higher quality.

HBO Max so far: no 4K HDR, no [Dolby] Vision, no Atmos. Is that stuff coming? Was that on the roadmap and just too hard to do? Is that a remastering problem?

I’m not going to have a feature dialogue with you, but as somebody that likes to get close to the metal, I can tell you that there’s a lot of features and a lot of capabilities that we would have liked to launch with that we didn’t.

It just comes down to a matter of priority and getting a product to market. When you’re asking about 4K and HDR and Atmos — not unimportant and definitely something on the roadmap. It had to be a deliberate choice of what to launch with and when. And those trade-offs happen daily. It’ll come. It wasn’t forgotten. I think it was just a deliberate prioritization.

NP: If you’d said, “You can watch all of Game of Thrones in 4K HDR, and the scenes that are too dark aren’t too dark anymore, and it’s in Atmos audio so you can hear the dragon,” everyone would just rewatch Game of Thrones tomorrow. And you would drive that subscriber base. Is that on your mind as a thing that you think will drive subscribers?

You have to remaster, you have to reingest, you have to build capability into the product. And then you have to sort of step back and say, “Is that something you do today? Or is that something you do in a month? Is that something you do in three? Against what other priorities?” And so, every individual feature or capability has an opportunity to drive customers and drive acquisition, drive engagement. And we think video quality is one of them for, again, a certain type of consumer and certain fan base.

“I personally can’t wait for the day that I can rewatch Game of Thrones in 4K HDR and Atmos. And that day will come.”

Look, I’m a geek. I’m as much of a product and a tech geek as I am a business geek. And so, I personally can’t wait for the day that I can rewatch Game of Thrones, to your example, in 4K and HDR and Atmos. And that day will come, along with many, many, many, many other features and functions that the team is working on diligently.

JA: When HBO Max launched yesterday, there were a couple people on Twitter — more than a couple — who were pointing out that there were search problems. I’m just wondering, what are the biggest issues that you saw on day one? Because every company that launches a streaming service has issues. It just happens. What are your most high-pri right now in order to get fixed?

There’s a long list, but it’s actually not as long as one would expect. And I think you just pointed to some of the opportunities and some of the things that people are working on. So largely, metadata, which then ultimately is what drives some of the search issues, is one of them. And the team is working on that today. I think that’s largely the issue. I mean, look, I can go down a long list of things that people actually haven’t seen that exist.

NP: I’ll trade you one of the user number questions for one of those issues.

[Laughs] No, we’re not going to do that. We’re not going to do that.

NP: I have to take my shots where I get them, man.

I’ve been through a number of these launches. We had a really solid launch yesterday. You expect some issues. And like I said, I think the issue that you’re pointing to is one. But this is pretty solid, all in all.

JA: HBO Max didn’t crash [yesterday], which is very impressive, because Disney Plus crashed when it launched. I wonder if that means that there just weren’t as many people playing it at once — that there weren’t that many people on it, compared to overusage on Disney Plus. 

Again, not to look at numbers and user numbers, but specifically what was that day one activity like? Were you seeing spikes the minute it launched, or was it pretty steady throughout the day? Were you seeing the usage numbers you wanted to see day one?

Julia, I got to commend you. You are so good at your job. You are trying 15 different ways to kind of get at an answer. I’m just going to... It’s four. I’m just going to put it to the nth degree. Because I’m sure it won’t be the last. 

Here’s just another example of we’re just starting from a completely different place. This is the platform that had 5 million concurrent users on a Sunday night watching Game of Thrones. So we’ve been through the scaling journey of the platform. We didn’t start writing code from scratch. We started redesigning apps from scratch. We started building new features from scratch. But it’s a pretty strong foundation that we built on.

But here’s what I will tell you, just to give you a little bit of a nugget. We were incredibly pleased with the amount of engagement that we had on a per-user basis on the platform. The fact that there was double the content on the platform versus what exists on HBO, the fact that the content was indeed broader and appealed to multiple demographics definitely gave us a sense of comfort that it’s resonating with consumers. Now we have to go sustain that.

A lot of focus is on the launch of yesterday, but let’s remember this is a long, long road. We closed chapter one. We are now writing chapter two. And this is going to be volumes and volumes and volumes. It’s not going to be one Moby Dick. It’s going to be many. And we’re just at the beginning.

NP: This is something that I didn’t quite realize. HBO Max is built on the bones of HBO Now. When I got the app yesterday, my HBO Now app upgraded to HBO Max. Is it the same basic infrastructure?

It’s the same infrastructure that was adapted for multitenancy. So the HBO Now app had all of the HBO service. HBO Max, built on that platform, has the HBO service as well as a variety of other... we’ll call them “content hubs.” And so we had to adapt to that. And then yes, we had to build incremental functionality into it: curation and editorialization of content, download capability, etc. 

But at the core, it’s the HBO Now platform, which, like I said, had nearly 5 million concurrent users at peak in supporting Game of Thrones.

NP: This brings me to the big question with AT&T’s media properties in general, which is that there are a lot of them. They all have very similar names. And it seems like just understanding how to get HBO Max, how to get it maybe bundled into your wireless deal, or with your cable subscription, or how it relates to HBO Go or AT&T TV Now, or all of the other things. You might be a DirectTV subscriber. Is that going to get cleared up? Because it seems like the biggest confusion that AT&T, as a company, needs to solve is directing people to the appropriate product offerings and making it simple to just buy them.

So is your question: is it going to get simpler for people to buy HBO Max?

NP: My question is, can you name all of the HBO media properties that exist and how much they cost? Because I couldn’t right now.

Yeah, look, it’s two different questions. And so I’ll take them in those buckets.

AT&T is a holding company, and AT&T has many products, including broadband products, including mobile products. It’s a portfolio of consumer and business-to-business products. 

One of those portfolios is the media company in which HBO sits. So I’m going to take the video question in two buckets. One is the direct-to-consumer bucket. And then the second is the MVPD [multichannel video programming distributor] piece. 

And AT&T TV has been… we’ll call it the rebrand of a variety of AT&T video offerings, and that’s where the company landed. So they’re in the process of rebranding, but that’s the MVPD product. That’s the paid TV product. 

The question you’re ultimately asking is a question that’s not unfamiliar to me because we get asked a lot — HBO Go, HBO Now, HBO Max. And so let me try to simplify. If we were starting from zero, it’d actually be really easy because there wouldn’t be any legacy, but there wouldn’t be any subs. There wouldn’t be any libraries to build from, and there wouldn’t be any revenue to build a new product from. And so, yeah, is it complicated? Sure. 

“HBO Max is our platform, and it’s going to be our workhorse.”

But will I take an existing business with an incredible content library and incredibly iconic brand that is aspirational like HBO versus zero? 100 percent. I’ll take the blessing and the curse all at the same time. 

Now, you’re asking a very, very specific question and I actually think it’s important to get to that question. HBO Max is our platform, and it’s going to be our workhorse. I said it during Investor Day, I’ve said it in a couple of interviews, and I think it’s really, really important to do that.

All that said, we are not leaving customers behind. If they choose to engage with HBO Go, and that’s where a cable subscriber wants to consume HBO content, we’re going to let them for a period of time. And you pointed to your experience with HBO Now, which is: the app just got upgraded. And so where we can and where we feel it’s appropriate, we’ll upgrade the app.

I think in the next three to six months, it’s going to become evident that HBO Max is our workhorse and is the platform where multiple brands will come. But we’ve got consumers to serve. We’ve got business partners to serve, and we’re in a bit of a transition.

I commend you for the question because it’s an interesting one and it drives a lot of dialogue, but Apple and Google users yesterday got an incredible surprise and delight when their HBO Now app just upgraded itself to double the content, downloads, etc. Ultimately, we’d love to get everybody there, but it’s just a bit of a transition period. And like I said, I’d rather take the transition than start from zero.

NP: HBO Go is the app you use if you have an existing cable or satellite subscription and you want to log in with your cable credentials and stream over the top. That’s actually the app I use. But cord cutting is obviously dramatically accelerating. Everyone’s betting that we’re just going to move to services like HBO Max in the future, pay a la carte. Are you just expecting HBO Go to disappear over time as people cut the cord?

Actually, what we’re expecting, given the success that we’ve had in closing the deals with the [cable operators], is that subscribers start using HBO Max as a place to get their HBO services as well as all of this other content. And at such time that we feel like a good volume, if not the entirety of the base, is engaging on that platform versus another one, we’ll make a decision.

But right now, I mean, you just said it. You prefer to go to use HBO Go. I really encourage you to use HBO Max primarily because it’s got more content. And if you’re using HBO Go because you’re a cable subscriber, chances are that you can just log in to HBO Max.

On the AT&T front, you asked another question, which is how to get it. How incredible is it for a company to have built-in distribution and be able to give consumers incremental value for being a connectivity sub, right? If you’re an AT&T premium mobile or broadband or TV sub, you got HBO Max at incremental cost.

I think what often gets forgotten is how important scaled distribution is in the direct-to-consumer world. This company has 3.2 billion interactions with consumers every year. I mean, how strategic is that as part of an offering when you’re coming into a market like this? And so I look at, again, as embedded bases, legacy products, companies that have been around a long time. It’s a gift, quite frankly, what we have. We just have to navigate the education for consumers, but consumers have a lot of opportunities to get into HBO Max in a way that I think other folks just don’t have.

NP: We’ve been talking about TVs and TV platforms, but it’s AT&T. It’s a mobile carrier. That’s a big business. Have you gotten to the point where you’re thinking HBO Max is going to get preloaded on AT&T phones, [you’re] going to bundle the pricing in different ways? I mean, that’s the real win of AT&T owning WarnerMedia: building new kinds of packages for mobile. Has that happened yet?

Arguably, that’s where we’re starting. If you have the Premium Unlimited tier of AT&T mobile, you get HBO Max included. If you go to today, all of the ways that you can get HBO Max are there. So it is bundled. It’s preloaded on the Android phones, it’s preloaded on the Android OS AT&T TV box, and it’s included with a variety of AT&T packages. Like I said, that’s extremely strategic. We have a company that engages with consumers at mass, mass scale, that has packaged and embedded, bundled the HBO Max product.

NP: Does HBO Max hit the AT&T data cap on mobile?

Well, if it’s packaged in the Unlimited plan, it’s unlimited. And so, by nature...

NP: It’s unlimited but after 22 gigs, your speeds drop. If I want to just watch HBO Max all day on AT&T LTE, does that get preferential treatment to Netflix or something?

Yeah, it shouldn’t. Well, no. Again, this is a fairly broad question. 

I can’t get preferential treatment, and it wouldn’t. We’re treating data the same way for everyone. And so, as of right now, it’s included in the Unlimited Data package.

Actually, I don’t know the answer, frankly, to that question. This is one of the things I kind of drive my team on. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know.” So I don’t know the answer to that specific question other than it’s included in the Unlimited package, but I would circle back with that.

NP: It feels like the reason a company like AT&T would want to make a huge investment in WarnerMedia, in building out a platform like HBO Max — obviously in this country without net neutrality rules, it would be very easy to say “our platform is going to stream for free. It’s going to have higher video quality. It will always have the fastest data channel available to you.”

I mean, that’s just an obvious advantage AT&T could give itself. It sounds like if you don’t know, that maybe you haven’t even had the conversation?

Oh, no. Look, we’ve had the conversation. I don’t know where we landed on the specifics of data caps.

“The network is the plumbing, and the content is the water. And you’re seeing water and the plumbing kind of coming together.”

That’s something I personally have to go circle back on, but I think to your point, the opportunity is to redefine the bundle. Connectivity and content are coming together in the same way that it came together in the early days of the Triple and Quadruple Play.

And I think that’s what we’re starting to see at this point in time. The network is the plumbing and the content is the water, and you’re seeing water and the plumbing kind of coming together.

NP: Not usually what you’d... you’ve got to work on the metaphor. You usually don’t want the plumbing in the water, but I take your point.

JA: Bringing it back to HBO Max as a streaming experience, there were reports that there would be an advertising-supported component that would be a cheaper tier. Is that still planned? And if so, what is the branding for that? Is it like TJ Maxx — HBO Maxx, where you get like an extra X at the end, and that’s the ad-supported version?

Julia, I am going to invite you into the next marketing and branding meeting because I think that was brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.

NP: [Laughs] That’s a commitment, by the way. Julia is coming to your next branding meeting. That’s our next feature.

Talk about a sneak peek behind-the-curtain look. Not many get that invitation, by the way. [Laughs]

Look, we’re on day two of the subscription offering that we’ve worked really, really hard to get to. And I don’t mean to punt the question, other than that’s what I’m focused on right now, and that’s what the team is focused on right now. 

That said, I think, as a business, a two-sided business model for a content aggregation platform is really, really important, and we are evolving our advertising-based offering and strategy. Nothing more to share at this point because, again, we are myopically focused on what’s in front of us right now. But we do think it’s important that we bring consumers a variety of different offerings, a variety of different price points, and this is just the beginning.

JA: Let’s talk about the price point because $15... I know there’s a $12 one-year [deal] that HBO Max has, which I believe is about par with Netflix’s most popular plan. People were very excited by it. But normally, it’s $15. I wonder if there’s room for you guys to lower that in the future. Especially in this current market where people are losing their jobs, $15 is a lot of money to spend on a streaming service compared to Disney Plus, which is $7. Apple TV Plus, just $5. 

I’m wondering if there’s a chance for you guys to bring that down or if that gets into concerns with the carriers where [HBO] is a staple at $15 in the cable packages, and you can’t go below that.

A lot of consumers can get it for free. I’ve referenced it, and I’ll continue to reference it. 30-plus million subs today, many of which can just download an app and log in with their provider credentials and don’t have to pay a penny more. So that’s number one. 

Number two, a lot of AT&T customers can get it for free. You just bundle it into their connectivity and TV products. And so there’s a lot of opportunities to get this product at a lot less, if not entirely less. Zero versus the $15 direct-to-consumer price point. 

As far as the price point is concerned, you don’t go into these things blindly, and there are business implications and there are consumer implications on price points. We could have gone higher because we doubled the amount of content. We chose not to do that.

We chose instead to give people twice the content for the same price as we’re offering HBO because those HBO subs have essentially already voted that they would pay. Pricing evolves. Pricing will evolve over a period of time. You referenced one opportunity to get to a more affordable price point and broaden the funnel with advertising.

But again, we have a product that I think offers a pretty unique value prop in the fact that it’s got an incredible amount of content — high-quality content — and we landed on the price point actually fairly comfortably. And I think what got us there, frankly, is that there are opportunities for consumers to get the product for less than $15 across a variety of different channels.

JA: You mentioned content, and I would not be doing my job if I didn’t address arguably the biggest conversation with streaming right now, which is the war with theatrical [distribution]. 

WarnerMedia obviously brought Scoob! to premium video on demand, and it will eventually go to HBO Max. WarnerMedia announced a new studio, which is dedicated to these mid-tier films directly to Max, directly to premium video. How do you think about what gets a theatrical release versus what doesn’t? 

A lot of people still see it as if this goes to a streaming service exclusively, it’s not as good as what would end up in a theater. And although that might feel like an outdated idea, I think it’s how people still picture it. Because if there’s a big movie, why wouldn’t it just go to the theater? But you are investing super hard into content for HBO Max specifically, and I’m interested in what gets the HBO Max release versus what gets a much wider theatrical release.

I wish I could give you a formula. The reality is these things come down sort of on a case-by-case basis. The one thing I think is important to tackle at this time and then with this issue, in particular, is that the COVID situation has sort of required a number of businesses to rethink how they go to market and how they get to consumers. And I think we’ve seen the premium VOD space kind of be an outlet for films, seeing streaming platforms be an outlet for films. But unlike series, where there is more than sort of a one-hour or two-hour slot, the features are sort of a one-shot deal.

It’s so early in the game here to really understand the value of a feature versus a series in a streaming platform. But I think the options are vast at this point in time.

I was at DirecTV a long time ago, and I ran what we called “upgrade marketing” at the time, which essentially is existing customer revenues. It was the [TV on-demand] store. It was a premium business. It was a live events business. And we were one of the first at that point in time to test premium [video on demand]. And we just stopped because the math didn’t work. 

The question is the math going to work now for premium VOD? At what level of investment in a film? Is a $500 million film viable to lean into premium VOD and or streaming for distribution? Can you get enough value back versus a 30, 40, $50 million film or a $10 million film? 

I can’t give you specifics in and around how we as WarnerMedia are going to lean or how we as HBO Max are going to lean specifically in and around our films. We think features are important for the platform. And so we’re in an incredibly interesting period of change with respect to this topic. And there is going to be a ton of innovation and ton of test-and-learn and a ton of trials coming down the pike. 

I’m fascinated by what this conversation will be in one year when we’re over this challenge, and when we’ve had an opportunity to test and learn in a meaningful way.

NP: I want to zoom out. You’ve brought up a couple of big themes, several times. One is the idea that we’re reaggregating. There’s these new super-platforms or super-networks that are being built. Another one is just distribution — obviously, AT&T is a big distribution network. 

It seems like there’s a pretty big tension between who owns the interface of your TV service, who gets to bill you, and what bundle that bill gets you. Apple, for example. We’ve talked about this on the show many times. They desperately want their TV app to actually just be the interface of the Apple TV, but it’s not quite good enough, and Netflix won’t give them the data or the show recommendations. 

You decided to [give up that data]. Who do you think ends up owning the customer relationship? Because if I look at it with a long view, I’m paying you $15 a month, and paying Netflix some money, and paying Disney some money. I don’t know where shows are. Search and discovery is hard across all those things. I’d rather just pay a cable company one amount of money and get their guide and have it be really good. It feels like we’re just cruising right back toward that model.

Love this question and too bad we only have two minutes left. We can talk shop about this stuff all day long. 

We are undoubtedly in a period of reaggregation. I know this is going to sound lame, but you think back, broadcast [had a] few channels, then cable and satellite emerged [with] lots of channels, which arguably were the curators, more so than the aggregators. The cable and satellite companies were the mass distributors. They were the ones at the tip of the spear with the consumer relationship. 

“Is there another version of the cable distributor emerging? And what does that look like?”

The internet changed that in a meaningful way, and it’s a gift. It enabled what we’re seeing today, which is this reaggregation of content that gets consolidated into a super-network, which we call “an app,” but you’ve still got to get it to the consumer. And so the question is, is there another version of the cable distributor emerging? And what does that look like?

Is it Comcast X1 and AT&T TV? Is it a social platform? Is it the app stores? I can’t give you an answer as to what it’s going to be. But I am incredibly excited playing in this space with a platform like HBO Max, with a content offering like HBO Max, where we can command the attention of consumers and we can command it well. 

I don’t know where this is going to end up, but I really like our hand. And I think there’s a way to thread this needle. I mean, you look at what we’re doing on the Apple TV app experience. You can search for all the content that is on HBO and HBO Max, but it plays back on the HBO Max app. That seems like a good balance where you can search and discover.

NP: Is that a good business balance for you because they’re still up in your app, or is that the correct balance for the consumer? Because I look at that, as a consumer technology critic, and I’m like, “Apple’s interface is designed to confuse me.” There’s a business compromise here where you want them in your app, and Apple wants to own the search and discovery interface. And that means I, as a user, rarely know where I am as I use the Apple TV.

Look, Nilay, the flip side to that is, as a consumer, you can jump into the HBO Max app and the ideal business and consumer end point is that you never leave and that you never have to go watch content anywhere else.

NP: [Laughs] But that’s your ideal outcome. There are still shows on other platforms that I’d like to watch.

Yeah. And so we’re in a place of either the consumer accepting and engaging with the universal search that exists or the discovery app that exists on the platform, or go into individual apps. I think the answer for now is going to be both. What this looks like in two, three, four, five, 10 years, a bit of an unknown, but again, pretty fascinating to sort of be in the middle of it and be in the middle of it with the platform and an offering like HBO Max.

NP: All right, we are now fully out of time. So I want to make sure I ask you: when do you work? I ask every CEO this question, mostly because I just need the advice. How do you bracket your time so you can find time to use all your competitor apps or write the email instead of just being in meetings all day long? 

That’s a tough one. I work when I need to work. As I’ve worked more and more years, I have found that balance and priority are really, really important. And creating a bit of a division.

I’ll give you an example: I have two phones. I have a personal phone, and I have a work phone. The idea there is to absolutely, just absolutely separate email. There is a time where my work phone doesn’t leave my home office, and is not in my pocket, where I completely disconnect. 

For me, given that my teams are so spread out, I do tend to go later, as opposed to earlier. So I’m in New York. I tend to start my day 9, 9:30 as opposed to 7:00 in the morning, because I’m going till about 8:00 or 9:00 at night, just to sort of keep up with the West Coast.

I have young kids that I’m lucky enough — they still like me. They’re 13 and 16. I love spending time with them. And so weekends to me tend to be really, really sacred. Before COVID, I was on a plane all the time, and I made it not only a goal, but an absolute rule, that I was home by Friday, and I spent the weekend with my kids, creating space to spend time with family. 

I tend to go a little bit later, and I do tend to use the time that I have in the morning to really just chill, do things that I enjoy, just get into a good mind space.

The Vergecast /

Weekly tech roundup and interviews with major figures from the tech world.