HBO Max is the latest (and potentially last) major streaming service to launch, and it's entering a crowded field in uncharted territory: The coronavirus pandemic has trapped many folks at home, so TV viewing is up. But it arrives with the steepest price tag ($14.99 a month), just as the economy is cratering.
It has a big leg up on the competition: An existing base of 43 million subscribers to HBO or Cinemax and its existing streaming service. The good news is, many of those users will get the Max upgrade for free, including current subscribers to HBO Now, AT&T and Spectrum Cable. Customers of other systems, including Comcast, would need to drop their HBO subscriptions and sign up at hbomax.com, which is offering a discounted first-year rate of $11.99 a month until May 27. A cheaper version of HBO Max, with commercials, is due in mid-2021.
But what are you getting for your money? And how is it different?
Unlike Apple TV Plus, it has a library of content, led by TV hits "Friends" and "The Big Bang Theory," all of HBO's series, Warner Bros. films, "Sesame Street" and several kids shows. Unlike Disney Plus and Hulu, which target young families and adults, respectively, it's designed as a one-stop shop for all ages. And unlike Netflix, it aims to provide what backers call a more "curated" collection of content, rather than overwhelming subscribers with endless choices – although fewer options mean less chance of finding something you fall in love with. (Quibi, full of short-form shows with big stars designed for mobile phones, has been a non-starter.)
WarnerMedia Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt, whose main focus has been launching HBO Max, says the new service is designed to broaden HBO's existing base by adding programs with broader appeal to younger viewers and women. "We want to present a curated, focused platform that has high-quality choices for everyone in the family," he says. "We're trying to draft off the philosophy of what HBO has done for all these decades: Less is more and better."
With its original series, HBO Max will follow the Hulu and Apple playbook in releasing shows: The first few episodes will stream at once, followed by weekly installments each Thursday.
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Everything available now to HBO subscribers will also be included in the new service. That means the current series, from "Westworld" to "Euphoria" to "Insecure," alongside classics "The Sopranos," "The Wire" and "Sex and the City."
Miniseries and theatrical movies you've watched on HBO will also be embedded into the new streaming service.
What else can you watch? Older series, classic movies
HBO Max has three tentpole TV series: "Friends," which left Netflix in December and has not been available to stream since then; "The Big Bang Theory," which has had no streaming home and ended its run on CBS last May; and more than 300 episodes of "South Park," which has aired on Comedy Central since 1997.
The service also offers a library of other shows, mostly from the Warner Bros. library, from "The Bachelor" to "Adventure Time" and from "The Flintstones" to "Doctor Who." The movie selection ranges from classics – "Casablanca," "Citizen Kane" and "The Wizard of Oz" – to the "Lord of the Rings" and "Austin Powers" franchises and DC Comics movies. BBC nature series, Studio Ghibli anime films and new CW series from 2020 on will also find a streaming home on HBO Max.
Original series for grownups
- "Love Life," a romantic anthology series starring Anna Kendrick that traces a woman's relationships, one at a time. (May 27)
- "On the Record," a documentary in which music executive Drew Dixon struggles with her decision as one of the first women of color to accuse hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons of sexual assault. (May 27)
- "Legendary," an underground ballroom voguing competition series. (May 27)
- The third season of former TBS comedy "Search Party" (June 25)
- "Expecting Amy," a three-part documentary on comedian Amy Schumer and her life on tour amid a difficult pregnancy.
Kevin Reilly, HBO Max chief content officer, says subscribers can expect about six new Max specials, shows, or movies per month – excluding HBO content. Among others: the first HBO Max movie, "An American Pickle," starring Seth Rogen, is due Aug. 6, after its planned theatrical release was shelved. Also in the works: Movies from super-producers J.J. Abrams and Greg Berlanti, reality-competition series and remakes of Warner Bros. TV series like "Gossip Girl" and "Head of the Class."
Original documentary (dropped by Apple): He's 'a monster': 'On the Record' gives first-hand accounts of Russell Simmons rape claims
As the coronavirus pandemic shuttered most movie and TV production, however, several other projects have been delayed. Among them: "The Flight Attendant," a thriller starring Kaley Cuoco ("The Big Bang Theory") that had begun shooting in New York and was due to premiere this month; and the "Friends" cast reunion special, meant to usher in the 236-episode series. Greenblatt says the reunion, which had been scheduled to tape in late March, will happen eventually, but only when it's safe for them to be together.
"Sesame Street" is the core property here: New episodes will stream on HBO Max (instead of airing on HBO) starting this fall, and the entire library is available. Also new: "The Not Too Late Show," an Elmo-hosted chat with guests from Jimmy Fallon to the Jonas brothers, and "Craftopia," a kids-crafting competition series. And in its most ambitious attempt to revive classic Warner Bros. cartoons to date, the service will feature 80 new 11-minute Looney Tunes shorts, featuring classic characters such as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Porky Pig. All of these series will be available when the service launches May 27.
The outlook for success
In a recent report, Michael Nathanson, a financial analyst at MoffettNathanson, says he's "impressed by the product, and persuaded by its potential to meet" the goal of 50 million subscribers by 2024, by attracting "a broader set of customers" than HBO Now has. But because the vast majority of initial subscribers already pay for HBO, "we are more cautious about its financial prospects," he says, as the company is investing $2 billion in the service and will lose more revenue it would have generated by selling shows to competing streaming services such as Netflix.
For newcomers, the price tag may be too steep, especially for those who are feeling a financial crunch or already sign up for some combination of Netflix, Disney Plus, Amazon Prime, or Apple TV Plus, all cheaper options.
"It's the oddest of times, and certainly people have a variety of pressures," Reilly says. But the competition has lessened for other stuff to watch: "We're not competing against live events, we're not competing against sports, and we're not competing against a variety of other entertainment driving people's attention away."
Greenblatt says "we're feeling really good about the prospects, given the depth and quality of what we're offering." Although it remains unclear how deep and how long the economic toll of the coronavirus pandemic will last, is "we feel really confident that this will land in a good place for people who are looking for great content, more than we could ever imagine when this whole thing started two months ago."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: HBO Max: What will it have? All your questions, answered