HBO Max was supposed to launch as the new, jam-packed streaming service of our wildest dreams—an HBO Now revamped, essentially, with all of HBO’s library plus all of WarnerMedia’s vast catalog. But despite the fanfare, HBO Max launched this week as a muddled mix of confusing brand identities that neither honors HBO’s high-bar legacy nor gives a clear idea of what Max is trying to be. Instead of being the best new thing in streaming services, we got a hodgepodge of oddball brands shuffled in together without any apparent cohesion. HBO Max is a damn mess, and it’s ruining an otherwise great service that viewers loved.
First, let’s clear up what HBO Max even is—as the service didn’t do a very good job of explaining itself prior to launch. Max is essentially the brainchild of executives who wanted to bring all of the legacy content acquired by WarnerMedia to one, very big streaming service—a veritable goliath to compete with services like Netflix (more on that in a bit). HBO Max isn’t a third HBO service so much as it is a repackaged version of HBO Now—the brand’s stellar standalone streaming service—with more stuff. HBO Go, meanwhile, is the service used by people who pay for HBO through their TV or cable provider. Things started to get a little confusing when the company announced that Max would cost the same as Now at $15 per month and that some—but not all—existing subscribers (i.e. those eligible for Go) would be automatically bumped up to Max at launch.
People who subscribed to HBO Now directly and those who subscribed to HBO through Apple, AT&T, DIRECTV, Google Play, Hulu, Samsung, Optimum, Spectrum, Suddenlink, Verizon Fios, and—in a final hour deal announced on launch day—Comcast Xfinity and Flex, as well as through some select independent service providers, were able to get Max at no extra cost on Wednesday. At launch, the Now app automatically updated to the Max app on supported devices. A spokesperson told Gizmodo that HBO Now “will continue to exist on platforms where we don’t yet have distribution deals in place.”
Some Gizmodo readers noticed on launch day that Max was absent on two major platforms: Roku and Fire TV. For Amazon, the issue appears to stem from a disagreement over Prime Video Channels terms. In a statement, a Max spokesperson told Gizmodo that the company continues “to work on these deals, but as of now, there is no deal in place with Amazon or Roku. If that changes, we’ll let you know.”
An Amazon spokesperson, meanwhile, accused HBO’s parent company AT&T of “choosing to deny these loyal HBO customers access to the expanded catalog. We believe that if you’re paying for HBO, you’re entitled to the new programming though the method you’re already using.” Roku was far less prickly about the support issue, with a spokesperson telling Gizmodo that while it hasn’t reached an agreement with Max yet, “we look forward to helping HBO Max in the future successfully scale their streaming business.”
By all indications, HBO Now seems to be a holdover for existing customers until HBO can get its distribution agreements sorted. So there’s that whole drama.
For people with actual access to the service, they’ll find an odd hodgepodge of content greeting them after they figure out how to log in—an issue that gave multiple Gizmodo staffers trouble on launch day. Once in, the familiar carousel used by HBO Now appears at the top of Max’s homepage with featured content. These spots were mostly reserved for Max originals and big franchises like Harry Potter and Friends. Below that, things get weird. Rather than showcase its new originals straight out of the gate—or, say, its new hubs for content from DC, Turner Classic Movies, or Studio Ghibli—the service instead promoted another row of featured content for which the first slot curiously goes to tired CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory and the fifth spot went to the hidden-camera reality TV series Impractical Jokers—two decisions I had trouble wrapping my head around. But it’s clearly meant to take a page from the Netflix playbook and lean on old popular content instead of top-shelf originals.
This probably won’t be a deal-breaker for viewers so much as it feels like a departure from HBO’s tendency to focus on quality content up top over, say, reality TV and a show that mercifully ended over a year ago. Content nested higher on the page made Max feel less like the HBO we’ve come to love with Now or Go and more like the handiwork of a top-level executive looking at numbers on a spreadsheet to decide what should be peppered in where. Teen drama The O.C. is among these misfit “featured series,” as is the original Teen Titans animated series—both of which aired their final episodes in the mid-aughts. HBO’s legacy series meanwhile—shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Sopranos, and True Detective, as well as its newer originals—are buried halfway down the page, right above a similarly bizarrely placed hub navigation menu. Rather than showcasing these new additions to the service, they feel almost like an afterthought.
The Max Hubs, as they’re called, host the other WarnerMedia content shuffled into the mix—Max’s way of organizing outside brands and bringing them under one large, somewhat contrived umbrella. These include Looney Tunes, Studio Ghibli, TCM, Crunchyroll, Adult Swim, Cartoon Network, Sesame Street, and DC—the latter, quite disappointingly, being one of Max’s weaker offerings on the service. The DC hub’s Batman subsection, for example, comprises just five films and noticeably excludes Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy. (A spokesperson told Gizmodo those will come to Max “within our first year of launch.”) Other titles will also arrive within Max’s first year, including every Batman and Superman release from the last four decades, along with every DC film from the last 10 years, including Wonder Woman and Justice League. But making a big ass deal about being a DC hub and delivering such a meager lineup at launch was, well, strange. It would be a bit like Disney+ launching without most of Marvel’s movies. While Disney+ was missing a couple at launch because of existing licensing deals, it had nowhere near the glaring holes that Max does.
The service’s anime offerings, meanwhile, also had problems. As my colleague Alex Cranz noted, there are no closed captions on dubbed versions of Crunchyroll content—which, by the way, is also pretty lean and doesn’t make much of a case for canceling your actual Crunchyroll subscription just yet. The Studio Ghibli hub, meanwhile, is noticeably missing Grave of the Fireflies—and if you’re holding out for Max to get it, forget it. A spokesperson told Gizmodo that it won’t be included because Toho owns the distribution rights to the film.
All of this paints a pretty sad picture of the planning and thought that went into rebranding a streaming service that people, including myself, really loved.
And then there are the technical offerings—or lack thereof, rather: Max shit the bed on 4K and HDR streaming. Other services like Netflix and the recently launched Apple TV+ and Disney+, and even HBO Max’s sister service DC Universe, support enhanced streaming, making it a kind of standard feature for most major players in the services field. And it could come—eventually. A spokesperson for Max told Gizmodo that “we look forward to delivering this in the future.” But failing to support 4K and HDR at launch while other streaming giants offer it seems like an odd choice for AT&T’s supposed “key video product,” as former CEO Randall Stephenson described it last year. It also makes Max feel—as with so many other elements of the service—like a product that was rushed out the door without a ton of thought about what would actually give viewers the best possible experience.
To be clear, a lot of the presentation at launch appears to focus on just grabbing eyeballs rather than actually showcasing some of the truly great features of the service. Max’s outstanding TCM collection, for example, is found almost exclusively through the hub or peppered randomly in genre sections rather than through a dedicated subsection on the homepage. Why murder Filmstruck if you’re just going to shove baby in a corner? TCM, in my opinion, was one of the service’s more exciting features. And yet, again, the collection’s presence on Max felt like an afterthought—which definitely seems to counter claims by executives that they gave a shit about Filmstruck’s legacy and viewers. By all indications, they absolutely do not.
A super-stuffed service with something for just about everyone is definitely exciting in theory. But the presentation in its current form is lazy and kind of gross. HBO Now has always felt like a service for viewers who value quality over quantity—the anti-Netflix. HBO had all but mastered the art of good, quality content—even for kids!—as well as showcasing and curating those films and series in a way that felt, as departed longtime and award-securing HBO chief Richard Plepler put it, “bespoke.” But then the AT&T takeover of Time Warner happened, essentially ensuring that HBO’s well-oiled machine would not continue on business as usual. Its top executives were bold enough to admit as much, too.
John Stankey, longtime AT&T top brass who took on overseeing HBO as chief of WarnerMedia, reportedly said after the merger that the company would need to “change direction a little bit.” In a bizarre exchange with Plepler during a town hall meeting in 2018, Stankey said that HBO wasn’t making “enough” profit and that it needed to increase subscriptions and engagement.
“I want more hours of engagement,” Stankey said, per the New York Times. “Why are more hours of engagement important? Because you get more data and information about a customer that then allows you to do things like monetize through alternate models of advertising as well as subscriptions, which I think is very important to play in tomorrow’s world.”
Plepler left the company last year and eventually landed at Apple as a producer for Apple TV+ productions—which, quite frankly, was a huge and much-needed get for Apple. Meanwhile, Stankey, who was promoted to CEO of AT&T in April, was instrumental in Max’s development. A spokesperson told Gizmodo that Stankey “reorganized the company to deliver, and hired the right execs to develop, manage and bring HBO Max to life.”
In a reveal by Variety earlier this month that now—having seen Max—has not aged especially well, Stankey was reported as scheming a Netflix-like platform that could use all of Time Warner’s entertainment assets as far back 2017 when talks for the acquisition were in their earliest stages. A spokesperson told Gizmodo that Max will continue to adjust its service and add new technology and features in the weeks and months ahead, which means there’s plenty of room for improvement. But it likely won’t get back to the HBO that felt highly curated and quality-focused—which, and I cannot stress this enough—is shitty and disheartening.
“We’re now in the new era of aggregation platforms—whether it’s a Netflix or an Amazon or an HBO Max,” Stankey told Variety. “You’re going to see all content eventually move to these platforms with multiple forms of monetization. That’s how you offer the best content to consumers at the best value-oriented price. That’s how this matures over the next couple of years.”
And that pretty perfectly captures the essence of this new, repackaged HBO with more stuff. HBO was the gold standard for entertainment for decades, with its streaming service a rare high-caliber titan in space full of mediocre wannabes. But it’s been reduced to a hollowed-out Netflix competitor with a lot more noise to sift through and less of the experience that made HBO Now so great. If a deluge of content is what you’re looking for service-wise, Max is a pretty good option. But if quality and high-bar, award-winning series and television on a beautifully curated service is more your speed, well, I guess keep an eye on whatever Apple is planning to help fix its sinking ship and hope for the best. “Bespoke,” to again borrow Plepler’s term, HBO Max is decidedly not.
- HBO Max brings together all of HBO’s library, plus all of WarnerMedia’s other brands, including DC, Sesame Street, Turner Classic Movies, Studio Ghibli, Cartoon Network, Adult Swim, Crunchyroll, and Looney Tunes.
- Now, HBO’s former streaming service, is essentially a holdover for existing customers and will likely be phased out.
- Max severely tarnishes the legacy of Now as a well-curated, high-quality service several tiers above its competitors.
- At launch, the curation sucked and prioritized old popular content over top-shelf originals.
- Despite building itself up to be the new home of DC content, the service’s offerings are paltry. Max won’t get many titles until much later.