HBO Max debuts and, so far, it’s pretty underwhelming

HBO Max

At the very least, it’s unfortunate timing. AT&T today rolled out HBO Max, what it hopes will be a serious competitor to Netflix – and a dozen other growing SVOD services – or at least a serious also ran.

At the very worst? Well, it’s too early to tell, but could this be another service that’s misjudged the value of its content? Maybe.

First take?

  • At $15 a month it’s the most expensive service on the market.
  • Its landing page includes – surprise – an image from Friends, a bunch of other reruns, old HBO content and a few new originals;
  • While it’s available on a plethora of platforms, it hasn’t struck a deal yet with two of the most popular – Roku and Amazon, which have about 33% market share;
  • But, if you’ve got an Apple TV or Chromecast (with combined market share of 7%) you’re in luck. You’ll also get HBO Max free (sort of), if you subscribe to pay-TV services including AT&T TV, DirecTV, AT&T U-verse, Cox, Optimum, Spectrum, Suddenlink and Verizon’s FiOS-TV. All of them will offer Max as a streaming service, not as a channel on your pay-TV service; and,
  • Subscribe to the biggest cable pay-TV provider in the US, Comcast? Lucky you, Max and the cable operator just signed a distribution deal Wednesday morning.

Sigh.

Inspiring it is not, I’m afraid.

Is HBO Max another pandemic-crippled Quibi?

HBO Max isn’t likely to struggle as badly as Quibi – the much-ballyhooed service aimed at mobile users and small screens – launched just as the COVID-19 pandemic put everybody back in front of bigger screens.

In fact, Quibi’s big launch has been so soft that some of its largest advertisers, including PepsiCo, Anheuser-Busch and Walmart want to revise their payment schedule because of low viewership, reports the Wall Street Journal.

But launching with a price tag that’s nearly twice the entry level of Netflix and Amazon Prime (and three times that of Quibi’s) isn’t likely to foster rapid adoption, especially at a time when – for many – money is tight and the future uncertain.

Even HBO Max’s free trial – a lure that many services have seen better than 50% paid conversions from – is a little timid, just seven days at a time when other services are offering better deals because of the pandemic. And then that $15/mo. fee kicks in.

The bottom line

AT&T paid more than $85 billion for Time Warner and all of its content properties in 2018. It’s still trying to figure out how best to leverage it.

Unfortunately, it’s still thinking like a traditional pay-TV operator: Bundle a lot of stuff together and charge as much as you possibly can for it.

Compare that to Disney and it’s Disney+ product launch.

It, too, offered a bunch of library content, but it also rolled out a huge new piece of a tried-and-true franchise: The Mandalorian. A piece of original content that served to draw viewers back into the Star Wars franchise. And, the promise of more, high-quality content at the same level remains.

Will HBO Max be a hit? It isn’t likely to rival Netflix or Amazon (or Disney+) in its current iteration.

But AT&T has shown a willingness to change directions in the past – it purchased satellite pay-TV provider DirecTV to go big in that space after its U-verse service began to stall – and it’s tried a variety of iterations for its virtual pay-TV offering (albeit an alphabet soup that could be confusing).

It needs to recalculate the value proposition on its new offering, or it’ll be curbside.

Stay tuned and stay well.

Jim O’Neill is Principal Analyst at Brightcove. You can follow him on Twitter @JimONeillMedia and on LinkedIn