Audience Network to Become HBO Max Preview Channel; Scripted Originals May Move to Streamer

Ron Livingston in Audience Network's "Loudermilk" - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Audience Network

WarnerMedia continues to consolidate programming from across its portfolio.

Audience Network, the AT&T-backed channel available to DirecTV subscribers, is being transformed into a marketing channel designed to promote corporate sibling HBO Max. The move, which impacts both its linear and streaming offerings, will become effective at a date to be determined in the spring. It leaves four scripted originals — David E. Kelley's Mr. Mercedes, fellow drama Condor and comedies Loudermilk and You Me Her — in limbo. Sources stress some of those shows could likely to make the move to HBO Max, though a formal decision has not yet been made.

"We will begin to transition Audience Network from its current approach to support AT&T’s broader original content and marketing focus on the upcoming HBO Max service,” Daniel York, chief content officer, AT&T Consumer, said Wednesday in a statement announcing the news. “I am proud and grateful to the team at Audience for their many successes over the years, creating unique, fresh and provocative content along with our great studio partners. Twenty years ago we were the first pay TV provider to differentiate our content offering with the best exclusive original content, and the team truly brought to life the network vision: Always Original, Never Ordinary.” 

It's unclear how many employees will be impacted by the transition away from originals; the staff was informed of the radical shift Wednesday afternoon. "Over the coming weeks, we will be evaluating our work force needs as we continue working with our partners at WarnerMedia on the Audience transition,” said an AT&T spokeswoman.

HBO Max is WarnerMedia's biggest priority as the media giant looks to bulk up the service ahead of its May launch in a bid to better compete with streaming behemoths like Netflix. The service, which will cost $15 a month, will feature library titles like the Big Bang Theory and Friends as well as scripted originals and other titles from across WarnerMedia's portfolio.

Mr. Mercedes, which has been a critical darling that has suffered from being on a little-known platform available only to DirecTV subscribers, has become the network's flagship show. The drama recently wrapped its third season and is awaiting word on a fourth. (Kelley recently addressed the challenges of cutting through while on Audience Network in a September interview with The Hollywood Reporter's TV's Top 5 podcast.) The series followed the events of Stephen King's trilogy of books and may have already come to its natural conclusion given that the fourth book with the Holly Gibney character from Mr. Mercedes is The Outsider, which is already in the works as an HBO series set to bow Sunday.

Loudermilk, the Ron Livingston-led comedy that was renewed for a third season in late 2018, hasn't aired in more than a year and a premiere date for its return has yet to be revealed. Condor is in a similar situation as well. The drama starring Max Irons and William Hurt last aired in late 2018 and was renewed for a second season that summer. And the Greg Poehler comedy You Me Her was renewed for a fifth and final season and will wrap its run this year. The fate of all four shows now sits with Bob Greenblatt, who serves as chairman of WarnerMedia Entertainment and direct-to-consumer. 

Audience Network launched in 1999 as Fairview, a premium channel offered to DirecTV subscribers and part of the satellite provider's subscription package. It was rebranded as The 101 Network in 2005 and became Audience Network in 2011. In 2018, when AT&T bought DirecTV, the channel was offered to the former's cable subscribers. Originals came in 2007 when DirecTV swooped in to help save Friday Night Lights from cancellation, with Audience Network having first-run rights before episodes were broadcast on NBC. The network later acquired Damages following FX's decision to cancel the drama. Former programming chief Chris Long led Audience Network into scripted originals in 2011 with Rogue, followed shortly afterward by the critical darling Kingdom.

The end of Audience Network as a home for originals should come as no surprise. WarnerMedia, like other big conglomerates, has been re-evaluating everything from executives to programming as the company prepares for the streaming world. The future of Audience Network amid the pending launch of HBO Max was one of many questions WarnerMedia has been mulling. The ad-free platform has been without a dedicated programming executive since Long departed in November 2017 — as parent AT&T was poised to acquire Time Warner (which rebranded as WarnerMedia). In Long's absence, Daniel York, chief content officer and senior executive vp at AT&T, has been overseeing Audience Network.

Still to be determined is the future of WarnerMedia-backed streamer DC Universe, which is home to a handful of scripted originals and digital comics from the super-publisher. The Greg Berlanti-produced DC drama Doom Patrol, which has earned favorable reviews from critics, will simultaneously air its second season on both HBO Max and DC Universe. That platform's slate includes the third season of Titans, Young Justice, the animated comedy Harley Quinn (which is awaiting word on a second season) and Stargirl. The latter DC drama, from Geoff Johns, recently inked a deal to air episodes a day after their digital debut on The CW, the broadcast network co-owned by WarnerMedia and CBS TV Studios. Just how fellow subscription platform DC Universe will fit in with HBO Max remains a mystery. (It's worth noting that Disney+ has made comic book titan Marvel one of the key centerpieces of its streaming platform, with multiple TV spinoffs of the MCU box office favorites in the works.)