On Wednesday, May 27, WarnerMedia is launching its new streaming juggernaut HBO Max.
The service will be home to a wide variety of programming from across the WarnerMedia parent company — a gigantic conglomerate whose brands include everything from the Warner Bros. film studio to the HBO premium cable network to the Turner family of cable networks. Consequently, it will boast plenty of high-profile HBO Max exclusives, like Friends, DC’s superhero films, and a constantly curated list of classic films from the Turner Classic Movies library. But it will also feature non-WarnerMedia programming like the complete library of legendary Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli and the complete archives of South Park (eventually).
Hearing the name “HBO Max” and reading about all of that exclusive content might make you think this new service is just “HBO but with extra stuff.” But HBO Max is simultaneously easy to explain and incredibly, incredibly confusing. I’ve attended multiple press events for HBO Max, and I still cannot tell you precisely what’s going to happen when it launches. Some HBO subscribers will automatically have it, some will be able to “opt in,” and some will simply never do so without realizing they are paying the same amount of money for a service with less content.
Plus, while HBO Max has signed deals to bring lots of content to the service, not all of it will be there on day one. (As an example: The long-rumored “Snyder cut” of Justice League will finally be released on HBO Max — but only in 2021.)
It’s all deeply confusing, and so much of that confusion stems from how there are now four separate entities with “HBO” in their names: HBO, HBO Go, HBO Now, and HBO Max. So which is what? And how does HBO Max differ from the rest?
What is HBO Max? That part is (mostly) easy to explain.
HBO Max will feature all new Looney Tunes cartoons.
Perhaps the easiest question to answer: What is HBO Max? It’s simply WarnerMedia’s attempt to build its own Disney+ or Netflix or Hulu — a one-stop shop for all of the WarnerMedia streaming content your heart desires. Among the programming I haven’t already mentioned will be the massive library of programming from HBO across the network’s history, access to Adult Swim programming like Rick and Morty, and original programming that is exclusive to HBO Max.
The existence of HBO Max (and WarnerMedia) stems from Time Warner’s merger with AT&T in 2016, a merger that was held up by the Trump administration until 2019. Once the merger was official, WarnerMedia moved full steam ahead with its own streaming platform. (The presence of AT&T gave Time Warner the tech muscle to get a new service off the ground in a way that, say, Disney didn’t have when launching Disney+, though it’s not like that hurt Disney+ all that much.) The future of watching stuff is all in streaming, and most of the major entertainment companies are starting their own, balkanized streaming services to force you to pay to access their content. Isn’t the future fun?!
HBO Max lags slightly behind its competitors in original programming. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic and ensuing shutdowns in the TV and film industries, a lot of HBO Max originals slated for later in the year have had to pause production. Add to that the fact that the service’s day-one launch slate of original programs is pretty paltry, with the two of the main draws an Anna Kendrick rom-com TV series and a new talk show hosted by the Sesame Street character Elmo, and you have a situation where if your chief reason for subscribing to any given streaming service is to watch brand new original content, you might want to wait on HBO Max.
But the bigger question surrounding HBO Max is how it will fit into a world where a whole bunch of other things are called “HBO.” And the first thing you need to understand about HBO Max is that it contains HBO but is not actually a product of HBO.
The easiest way to understand this relationship might be to look at HBO Max competitor Hulu, which is majority-owned by Disney. Hulu’s fellow Disney subsidiary FX is becoming Disney’s own HBO-esque prestige TV outlet, and has begun programming its own corner of Hulu. It’s called FX on Hulu, which helpfully conveys the relationship between the two companies. You’ve heard of FX? You’ve heard of Hulu? Well, here’s a subsection of Hulu that’s both!
But FX and Hulu are still different companies, run by different people, and FX on Hulu shows, like Mrs. America or Devs, are different from Hulu originals, like Normal People or The Handmaid’s Tale or The Great. And plenty of FX programming (like the upcoming seasons of Fargo and American Horror Story) still debuts initially on the FX and FXX cable networks before starting to stream on Hulu. So I would argue that the whole setup is pretty confusing, if you’re trying to understand where FX begins and Hulu ends. Yet for most consumers, that won’t matter. They’ll just see “FX on Hulu” and hopefully grasp that it means “FX programming on this streaming service I subscribe to.”
HBO and HBO Max have a similar relationship: One is a cable TV network that makes most of its own programming and has a high-quality standard, while the other is a streaming service that has access to almost all of the TV network’s programming. But if you were going to call the section of HBO Max that will contain Game of Thrones and Succession and The Leftovers “HBO on HBO Max,” well, that would just confuse everybody, wouldn’t it? (As to how, precisely, HBO Max differs from HBO Go or HBO Now, we’ll get to that soon.)
In the short term, WarnerMedia’s decision to name its service “HBO Max” makes sense. Lots of people know what HBO is, and most of them probably have some positive feelings about HBO or its programming. But there’s a real risk that if all the HBO Max programming not made by HBO stinks, it will dilute the network’s overall reputation in the long term, in a way that FX’s reputation probably won’t be diluted by Hulu suddenly making a bunch of bad Hulu originals.
How do I get HBO Max? Well …
Anna Kendrick stars in Love Life, one of the new HBO Max shows exclusive to HBO Max.
But how does one subscribe to HBO Max? The answer, in most cases, is “Your current HBO subscription will become an HBO Max subscription, though you may have to opt in, instead of having it automatically roll over.” And HBO Max will cost $14.99 a month, same as the other HBO services, so if you’re already an HBO subscriber and wondering if you should go HBO Max, why not?
But the details will vary based on your cable provider. Eight million people subscribe to HBO without subscribing to a traditional cable package, and many of those people subscribe through services like Hulu and Amazon Prime. The deals to allow those “add-on” arrangements to happen had to be carefully massaged with cable companies, who saw streaming services and cord-cutting as an existential threat and didn’t want to lose HBO as a chief draw.
And now WarnerMedia must renegotiate many of those deals with companies that are trying to launch streaming services of their own.
It’s already been settled, for example, that HBO Max will be available on Hulu day one, and AT&T cable subscribers like myself will have HBO Max without any fuss. (Indeed, I just signed in to it without any problem at all.) Warner Media has reached dozens of similar agreements with dozens of other companies. But if you subscribe to HBO through Amazon Prime, you’re out of luck. Amazon won’t offer HBO Max as a “channel” in Prime Video at all. Similarly, HBO Max’s app is currently unavailable on Roku.
So to some degree, the answer to “How do I get HBO Max?” will be different for every individual subscriber. But if you already have some form of HBO subscription, getting it shouldn’t be too difficult. You may have to request the upgrade, but in many cases, you’ll just wake up one day and have HBO Max. How exciting for you!
Meanwhile, if you’re currently an HBO Now or HBO Go subscriber … well, what happens to those services?
HBO the TV network isn’t going anywhere. But neither are HBO Go or HBO Now.
A classy logo.
It’s easiest to understand the continued existence of HBO, the TV network. HBO remains a premium cable channel that you pay an extra fee for every month, on top of your basic cable subscription. It boasts a large fleet of first-run Hollywood movies and some of the best television ever made. It’s probably relegated to the section of your cable guide where Showtime and Starz also hang out.
If you’re an HBO cable subscriber, then you also have HBO Go, which is the streaming service that HBO cable subscribers automatically have access to. I know numerous people who have HBO but only ever watch HBO Go because it’s so much more convenient to fit HBO’s shows into their schedule via streaming. It is, in many ways, an evolutionary step from the HBO of the past to the HBO of the future, but it’s still around and kicking.
Finally, there’s HBO Now, which is an HBO service you can subscribe to without a cable package. You could argue that HBO Max is an elaborate city built up around the castle that is HBO Now, the original streaming service offered by WarnerMedia for cord-cutters. One big difference between HBO Max and HBO Now is that HBO Now is not producing its own original programming (because it just airs HBO’s stuff), while HBO Max is. But HBO Max also has considerably more content than HBO Now does.
The reason that HBO, the TV network, will continue to exist in a post-HBO Max world is straightforward. In many parts of the country, streaming bandwidth is hard to come by, while cable TV signals remain relatively strong. Plus, if you don’t have a device like a Roku or AppleTV, watching HBO on a traditional cable box remains possible on your TV. Keeping HBO as a TV-only product makes sense.
But why aren’t HBO Go and HBO Now going away forever, to be replaced by HBO Max? The simple answer is money — it makes some financial sense for WarnerMedia to have some percentage of HBO subscribers who never get upgraded to HBO Max (whether because their cable providers don’t have deals in place to let them do so, or because they never ask or care to be upgraded). Since those subscribers are paying the same for a product with less content than HBO Max, they’re in essence subsidizing the massive HBO Max library without gaining access to it.
Think of all of those people who continued to pay money to AOL for years longer they needed to, simply because they thought of it as “the internet.” In some ways, the continued existence of HBO Now and HBO Go in a post-HBO Max world operates on a similar principle. Both will continue to exist because people either don’t know they can upgrade or don’t want to. (At a press event I attended in January, HBO Max head Kevin Reilly insisted that plenty of people will prefer HBO Now, because they won’t want all of the added programming on HBO Max. He claimed to have data supporting this. I’m skeptical.)
I expect the number of HBO subscribers who don’t eventually roll over to HBO Max to be insignificant. And HBO Max’s largest untapped market is all of the people who don’t currently subscribe to HBO but might be interested in a service that collects so many types of content not typically relegated to premium cable outlets. But there’s a potential long-term problem of HBO Max having creative struggles that reflect poorly on the overall HBO brand. You can’t make dozens and dozens of new shows without having several duds, and the HBO brand is built atop not having that many duds.
So many of these quibbles will vanish if HBO Max turns out to be as good as it has the potential to be. But I’d be a lot more thrilled by the combination of its content and the folks working on it behind the scenes if its prelaunch communication to press hadn’t been so hopelessly confused. So for now, I cannot fully explain what the future holds for HBO Max and the many other HBOs. We’ll need to wait and see.
Update: WarnerMedia and Comcast have made a deal for the latter to allow HBO Max. Language in a previous version of this article saying they hadn’t come to a deal has been removed.