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Those HBO Max Numbers Aren't What They Seem

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HBO Max would probably very much like you to believe that its subscriber numbers are ballooning, but a bit of fudging on parent company AT&T’s part makes it difficult to pin down exactly how well the service is actually scaling.

In its Q1 earnings report released this week, the company cited “first-quarter results that showed continuing customer growth in wireless, fiber and HBO Max and strong cash flows.” It further went on to cite 2.7 million total domestic HBO and HBO Max net new subscribers, further noting 44.2 million total domestic subscribers and almost 64 million global subscribers. But those numbers don’t tell the whole story, and buried in the fine print at the very bottom of the report, AT&T sort of breaks down how those figures work.


Namely domestic HBO and HBO Max “subscribers” are represented by both “accounts with access to HBO Max (including wholesale subscribers that may not have signed in) and HBO accounts,” meaning the company is at the very least conflating HBO and HBO Max in its figures. When asked for clarification about the figures, a company spokesperson said that free trials aren’t counted. What it counts as “wholesale” accounts are those with access to its streaming service through a distributor, “including AT&T’s video, broadband and mobility businesses.” While “retail” accounts are those billed directly from HBO Max parent WarnerMedia.

This is not the first time we’ve seen the company use some creative math for its reported “subscribers.” When the company reported reaching 37.7 million subscribers in January, it also said that 17.17 million of those were “activated users.” When asked for clarification about this in February, a spokesperson clarified that the nearly 38 million subscribers it reported referred to users with access to HBO Max, while the 17.17 million referred “to customers who are actively using the platform.”


It’s not entirely fair, therefore, to compare HBO Max’s larger figures with those reported by rival services like Disney+ or Netflix, which boast subscribers in the hundreds of millions between the two of them. Netflix announced last year that it would deactivate inactive accounts after they’ve gone unused for a year, while Disney+ is a brand new service that launched a little over a year ago.

What’s interesting is that AT&T chief John Stankey seemed unwilling to elaborate on these figures during earnings. Asked during an investors Q&A about how customers are using HBO Max, Stankey declined to elaborate.

“We’re not going to give you any more guide publicly on the hours of engagement than what we gave you at Analyst Day. I don’t want to get into kind of every 5-week update on those numbers,” Stankey said, referring to an event in March. “I think we gave you a good sense of what’s happening, and our satisfaction that we’re well up over two hours per day per account. And I think that’s a really good place to be. And it certainly is probably higher than our engineered expectations when we launched the product, and we’ll take that goodness.”

In other words, it’s difficult to get a clear picture of how successfully HBO Max is scaling even as it throws the entire force of its 2021 film slate behind the initiative. The company is also gearing up to launch a cheaper ad-supported tier in June, however, which could potentially do the company some favors in the subscriber department. But at least while the company continues to meld HBO figures with those from its streaming service, AT&T’s numbers feel shaky at best.