The HBO Max Formula
If 2019 was the year of media mergers, the next step in this journey is to figure out how to make sure viewers keep binging? WarnerMedia's presentation last week during CES 2020's C Space Storytellers brought two executives form the company onto the stage to talk tech and strategy.
"I would say across the industry that the CTOs that run these services, we all sort of do a collective group hug at the beginning of each year, and hope that we don't have any glitches," said Jeremy Legg, CTO of WarnerMedia. "Technology is finicky, and the issues that Disney had appeared to be around scale. You obviously try to fix those quickly."
"While HBO Max is a new brand, HBO isn't a new product. And so we've been at the streaming game for quite some time," said Legg.
While Disney+ had issues, anyone who works within this field understands how it could have happened. "I generally think of these streaming services as a series of choke points for the consumer. There's the initial signup, payment processing, authentication, and entitlement services. There's the actual video and loads of concurrent video streams that go on inside of the service."
HBO Max is essentially version 2 of HBO Now, so WarnerMedia's hope is that since that service is already live today, the company should be ahead of the game. But what about new features? Content downloads are table stakes. The newest thing is viewers can have up to five profiles. "If you have two people that are viewing, but they have different kinds of likes, you can keep your own profile, and you can also have a joint profile. That's something that hasn't really existed in SVOD," he said.
"The next frontier where I think most of existing services are falling down is, we haven't gotten better at helping us find something new," said Andy Forssell, EVP and GM, WarnerMedia Direct-to-Consumer. "I think the user interfaces of these products have not focused on that."
WarnerMedia is looking to help viewers go past the drudgery of the grid. "Most of the SVOD services you see out there are endless sets of tiles," he said. "If you can even get 10% better at that, it's valuable to all of us as users and phenomenally valuable from the business standpoint."
"I think SVOD general entertainment writ large, is underinvested in mobile," said Forssell. The key is finding something relevant without getting lost in an endless search cycle. "You certainly don't want that if you have five minutes on mobile … we are experimenting with things that are far more social, more swipey."
HBO Max will be looking at how to chunk out segments of popular content to appeal to the mobile viewer. "We need to be aggressive enough to make that a real choice versus checking your Twitter feed or whatever else it may be. I think there are some real opportunities in mobile, and a lot of it ties back to the content—not just the experience, but what can you do that's just time well spent."
HBO Go, HBO Now, HBO Max—the choice to create a number of HBO sub-brands has brought a lot of confusion to viewers. "You'll see it get a lot simpler in 2020," said Forssell. He cited a complex combination of distribution systems, licensing, and partnership issues.
"One thing we've been public about it, there's a goal of 50 million subscribers or really households (for HBO Max) in the next five years. [We'll] focus on U.S. first and eventually worldwide," said Forssell.
As more and more companies fight for viewer attention various types of monetization will be important to throw into the mix. While HBO has always been subscription-based, WarnerMedia will be expanding with ad-supported services. "We've already said that AVOD will be a component of our service in the future," said Legg. So as WarnerMedia iterates, the key question is whether it can get the formula right. CES 2020 had a lot of talk about streaming wars. To quote Game of Thrones, "Winter is coming." Let’s hope HBO Max has content and is ready to scale.
Streaming Video Alliance's Jason Thibeault and WarnerMedia's Jason Press discuss co-viewing, human curation, and other elements of WarnerMedia's global strategy for HBO Max in this clip from their fireside chat at Streaming Media West 2019.
AT&T plans to invest $4 billion in HBO Max over the next three years, and believes it will be profitable by 2025. By that time it hopes to have 80 million subscribers.