Tim Goodman: What If WarnerMedia Got a Redo on the HBO Max Reveal?

The upcoming streaming service is still confusing. What's on it? How much does it cost? It didn't have to be this way, writes The Hollywood Reporter's chief TV critic.
Courtesy of WarnerMedia

Let's launch this part out of a rocket straight away: You can bet good money on WarnerMedia, er, HBO Max, being successful. It has great content (probably going to have to put some trust in that) and an impressive leadership in place. It will do very well, eventually. Excellently, perhaps.

In the meantime, there are thoughts that linger. 

Because every tiny ripple in the Streaming Wars world — hell, WarnerMedia was just announcing what it was calling the upcoming platform, after all — creates a wave of possible reaction.

There's a lot to unpack and the worry here was that it would be 1,000 words deep just talking about the ugly typeface of the HBO Max logo and not all the other stuff that the name choice (and the vague announcement) portend.

But actually, it's pretty easy just getting the logo thing out of the way with this: What did the letter X ever do wrong to WarnerMedia (or the designer)?

Now, on to the other, more relevant stuff:

What's more important, being first or being right? It's not a difficult question. You could also ask whether it's more important to be first or to be good. All of that applies to many fields in life. But maybe the question for WarnerMedia should have been: What's more important, to be first or to be clear?

It's hard to fault some of the decisions WarnerMedia has made regarding its rollout, but it's also hard not to surmise, at this point, that the company was basically thinking out loud in public about its plans and maybe should have gone to the wood shed and worked it out first.

The problem is Disney — and yes, Disney is often the problem for other entities because it's very big — was absolutely going to launch its streaming service in 2019. Right away that caused panic. Well, "right away" is misleading because it cuts to the heart of why, in 2019, the Streaming Wars is the biggest story in the industry — three years ago there was no urgency about challenging the streaming status quo. It was a thing companies were going to get to later, like, "Oh, we'll kill Netflix at some other time — it's on the calendar." But Disney was rumored to be getting into the game in 2016 and it was no longer a rumor by 2017. That's the same timeline as Apple (only later would the world discover that they would both add a plus sign to their new streaming services; it was like two pandas kissing it was so cute).

At long last, the Streaming Wars were happening (in the documentary there will be a jump cut to Netflix, Amazon and Hulu smirking). When Disney pinpointed 2019 as its launch date, that's the panic mentioned previously. Because Apple, less clear about its launch plans but freaking everybody out anyway just by being in the game, was clearly marching forward. Something had to be done!

WarnerMedia, which was just trying on its new name, really, knocked a bunch of papers and coffee off of its desk (just go with this) and announced it would also launch in 2019.

Yeah, in retrospect, that probably wasn't a good idea. That was the whole "thinking out loud in public" part that has, ever since, caused lots of confusion. The rush to get in the game was understandable (I mean, I've been writing a bunch of "you're late, hurry up!" columns for years, as have others, and eventually even traditional linear TV companies owned by telecoms get the hint and lurch forward). But was it smart to do so without a plan, necessarily?

As I pointed out in March, it wasn't really clear that WarnerMedia had a vision to sell consumers even though it was already slagging off Netflix. A month later I thought the best thing WarnerMedia could do was tell everyone about its awesome vault (and hurry up about it!) because, as consumers were finally deciding it was time to cut the cord (or more accurately, Googling how to start planning to cut the cord), they were going to allocate dollars to each, based on what they'd get in return, and their money was absolutely going to Netflix and Disney+ first, so WarnerMedia needed to articulate the reasons why people should subscribe to it, too.

You know, that should have been a lot easier than how it's gone.

By WarnerMedia talking about a service it hadn't yet created, word came out that it would have three tiers people could pay for (conceptually, not good). Now it's down to two tiers, which is better, but whatever's coming in 2019 is now being reported as a beta thing (conceptually, not good) and that the more realized entity will arrive in 2020 and be called HBO Max.

Phew.

Would it have been less confusing if WarnerMedia had never targeted 2019 and never talked about what it was going to do until it actually did it (or focused the message)?

Yes.

Because here's also what went into the zeitgeist and the ears of potential consumers, prior to last week's announcement, uh, clarifying things: HBO was going to be a part of the new streaming system but it was also going to still be a stand-alone streaming concept (HBO Now), as was the DC Universe, though FilmStruck had already been shut down, but no worries because those Turner Classic Movies would be part of the future streaming service, probably.

Wait, what?

Yes, it's confusing. Should consumers subscribe to various different smaller WarnerMedia services right now or wait for the bigger product (the answer appeared to be yes and yes, which is...confusing?).

Even with the announcement that the new service would be called HBO Max, not a lot got clarified. But at least WarnerMedia got that Friends thing sorted out (not said with a snicker), as the franchise will return for the 2020 non-beta launch of HBO Max. (Are you beginning to feel the regret on 2019 ever being mentioned?)

While you can see through the haze a little better now, putting HBO in the title was simultaneously smart (theoretically it's better known than the Warner brand but I'll bet you can get a really good argument on that), and also confusing — that word again — because if you're one of the roughly 8 million or so fluctuating subscribers to HBO Now at $14.99 a month, wouldn't you just choose HBO Max for a few dollars more? And if you're an HBO linear subscriber and you're hearing that all of this great additional content will be on HBO Max, aren't you ready to dump linear entirely and go the streaming path (which is an entirely separate future column)?

What's probably going to happen — emphasis on the probably, which brings us back to the notion of whether it's better to be first or to be clear — HBO Now will disappear and HBO Max will take its place at a yet undisclosed price point, but probably more than $14.99.

Ah, the price mystery. Going public with plans that are not fully realized doesn't really help. Great, we now know it's called HBO Max and it will have Friends but we don't know how much it's going to cost or whether it will replace HBO Now. This is a missed opportunity for WarnerMedia, because consumers are counting their money and if your service is going to cost more than Netflix and Hulu and definitely more than Disney, then you should probably beat Apple to that particular announcement at the very least, to stay in the conversation.

Most important, however, is the thing that hasn't changed: Tell consumers what you have and why they should spend, theoretically, somewhere between $15 and $18 for it. (At least WarnerMedia finally put together an almost understandable sizzle reel of what's in the vault when it announced HBO Max.)

It wouldn’t be necessary to keep dropping an anvil about this if WarnerMedia wasn't releasing snippets of information about its service rather than waiting and being thorough and definitive. Every vague announcement is an opportunity missed.

What's in the vault? A lot. Name the properties, the titles, the valued goods. Get people excited. Beat the bad news (as it did by announcing the Friends get back during the HBO Max name reveal). Because bad news is out there: NBCUniversal has the rights to one of WarnerMedia's best assets — the Harry Potter franchise — through 2025 and you can be damned sure that when NBCUniversal's streaming service launches in 2020 it will be using Harry and Hogwarts as a carrot.

I suspect that one of the issues here is an age-old one — everybody in this town thinks the rest of the world knows what it knows. Meaning, that consumers are fully briefed on old licensing deals and have encyclopedic knowledge of what's on the bench of every media company in town. And, as an extension of that, those consumers know what year all that content will shift back to the proper owners and the proper streaming services, thus helping them form opinions on what to pay for now.

They do not. A little help would be nice.

So imagine this different scenario for how things could have been: In the summer of 2018, WarnerMedia is born (everybody is just happy it doesn't have AT&T in the title). It lets people get used to the name. It otherwise goes about its business. Four months later in the fall of 2018, WarnerMedia announces it will launch an over-the-top streaming service — but, key edit, doesn't say when. "We're in the game" is pretty much all it needs to say. It keeps quiet and strategizes. Nobody talks about tiers. People inside the company working on short-term strategy sit down and meet with the people working on long-term strategy. Before anything is shuttered, launched or relaunched, branded or rebranded, licensed out, or bought back, the master plan is put in place and nothing is yet mentioned publicly.

And then it is: A realistic, non-beta launch date. A name. A price. A list of everything the service will include (yes, everything, in detail). Transparency on what's missing and what will be brought back. What existing properties will be folded into the larger product and a straightforward proclamation that they'll exist as is for business needs but will be in the all-inclusive package, with current subscribers getting short-term pricing discounts once it all, in its combined majesty, comes together.

Clean, neat, with clarity. 

I mean, probably super difficult to pull off. Maybe a pipe dream. But also maybe not. But at least there's no confusion for the consumer. Confusion leads to lost opportunities. And lost opportunities lead to lost profits.

Because as it stands now, what the hell is HBO Max, really?