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May 31, 2020

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HBO late to the streaming fray

DECADES before glossy Netflix and Amazon shows began luring Hollywood A-listers to the small screen, cable network HBO helped invent premium television.

Now the home of “The Sopranos,” “The Wire” and “Game of Thrones” is scrambling to catch up with its newfound online rivals, launching its own multi-billion-dollar streaming platform, HBO Max, on June 3.

“Within the crowded constellation of entertainment brands, HBO is a crown jewel,” said University of Southern California communications professor Christopher Smith. “They’re using the HBO brand bludgeon to break their way into the streaming wars.”

The streaming platform enters a competitive marketplace. Besides Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu, the likes of Disney+, Apple TV+ and Quibi have recently joined the fray.

But having licensed its films and series to other streamers for years, parent company WarnerMedia felt it could no longer skirt the direct-to-consumer revolution seizing Hollywood.

HBO Max’s launch follows telecom giant AT&T’s US$85 billion purchase of Time Warner, and brings that sprawling media empire’s titles under one roof.

The platform will offer beloved Warner Bros shows like “Friends” and films ranging from “Casablanca” and “Citizen Kane” to “Batman” alongside prestige HBO programs.

Indeed, HBO Max was supposed to launch with a long-anticipated “Friends” reunion until the coronavirus pandemic ended those plans.

With the pandemic delaying new filming across Hollywood, HBO Max executives are counting on comforting classics to lure subscribers during anxious times.

“We’re really tapping into the nostalgia and the warm feeling that’s associated with these iconic characters that people love, and stories they’ve fallen in love with year after year,” said Katie Soo, head of marketing for HBO Max. “The reality is, this is a challenging time. There’s no playbook for it.”

Crown jewel

Despite its enviable back catalog, media analysts have voiced concerns over the new platform’s strategy.

Costing US$15 a month, HBO Max is the most expensive option at a time when unemployment in the United States is soaring.

And the platform’s “more is more” smorgasbord approach is at odds with the classic HBO model of focusing on fewer, high-quality productions that “really move the needle,” said USC’s Smith. “That does threaten to dilute what made HBO so special.”

HBO Max used a tagline for one advertising campaign — “Where Bada ... Meets Bing ... Meets Bang” — accompanied by images of fictional mafia boss Tony Soprano, Chandler Bing of “Friends” and “The Big Bang Theory’s” Sheldon Cooper.

The ad was slammed by analysts for confusing consumers about what HBO Max actually is.

Potentially adding to the confusion, HBO Max will run alongside pay TV service HBO Go and existing standalone app HBO Now.

“Bad slogan, bad promotion,” said Smith. “But the actual substance of what they’re marketing is phenomenal.”

While HBO Max has no marquee original launch programing, it has high profile series and films in the pipeline.

In the works are three new shows from “Lost” creator JJ Abrams, a “Gossip Girl” revival and Ridley Scott’s sci-fi thriller “Raised by Wolves.”

On the movie side, new production label “Warner Max” will provide eight to 10 movies per year.

And comic book fans around the world collectively swooned last week with the announcement of a much-hyped new edit of 2017 ensemble movie “Justice League.”


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