WarnerMedia Strikes Eleventh Hour HBO Max Distribution Deal With Comcast

HBO Max Warner Media Investor Day - Logo 2019- Getty 2- H 2020
Presley Ann/Getty Images for WarnerMedia

By mid-morning on HBO Max's launch day, Xfinity customers were able to sign up for the service.

When HBO Max debuted on Wednesday, it was noticeably absent from major video distribution platforms operated by Roku, Amazon and Comcast. But last-minute negotiations between WarnerMedia and Comcast meant that by mid-morning, Xfinity and Flex customers were able to access the streaming service shortly after it launched. 

"We're thrilled to cap off the excitement of today's launch by adding Comcast's Xfinity to our roster of distributors who are now offering HBO Max to their customers," Rich Warren, president of WarnerMedia Distribution, said in a statement. "This deal marks another important step in the distribution of HBO Max and provides millions of Xfinity customers with access to the product."

At stake is WarnerMedia's ability to distribute HBO Max to the widest possible audience as it seeks to amass 50 million U.S. subscribers by 2025. Comcast is the largest cable provider in the U.S. with more than 20 million video customers. But HBO Max — which is available on Apple TV and Google Chromecast — still won't be able to reach customers on the two largest streaming platforms, Roku and Amazon. 

When reached for comment, a Roku spokesman said, "As the No. 1 streaming platform in the U.S., we believe that HBO Max would benefit greatly from the scale and content marketing capabilities available with distribution on our platform. We are focused on mutually positive distribution agreements with all-new [over-the-top] services that will deliver a quality user experience to viewers in the more than 40 million households that choose Roku to access their favorite programs and discover new content." 

The statement continued, "Unfortunately we haven’t reached agreement yet with HBOMax. While not on our platform today, we look forward to helping HBOMax in the future successfully scale their streaming business."

WarnerMedia had preexisting relationships with many distributors to offer cable channel HBO and its stand-alone streaming channel HBO Now. The AT&T-owned company has wanted to bolster HBO Max signups by upgrading Now members at no extra cost by updating the HBO Now app to HBO Max. That happened Wednesday morning on the platforms that had struck deals with HBO Max. But because Roku and Amazon have yet to reach an agreement over the terms of a deal, those customers will continue to see the HBO Now app. 

At issue in Amazon's negotiations with WarnerMedia is whether HBO Max would be sold through the Prime Video Channels platform, where around 5 million people already subscribe to HBO. Amazon can earn significant revenue by offering subscriptions to channels like HBO through its platform and taking a cut of the membership fee. "Unfortunately, with the launch of HBO Max, AT&T is choosing to deny these loyal HBO customers access to the expanded catalog," an Amazon spokeswoman said in a statement. "We believe that if you’re paying for HBO, you’re entitled to the new programming through the method you’re already using. That's just good customer service and that’s a priority for us."

The late nature of WarnerMedia's deal with Comcast means that HBO Max won't be immediately available on the Xfinity X1 platform. Until then, Comcast customers will be able to access HBO Max via the app and website. 

"X1 and Flex bring our customers an unmatched depth and breadth of live, on demand and streaming entertainment, and we look forward to partnering with WarnerMedia to integrate the HBO Max app on our platforms alongside close to 200 other streaming services — all searchable with the award-winning Xfinity Voice Remote," Rebecca Heap, senior vp video and entertainment at Comcast Cable, said in a statement.

12:30 p.m. Updated with a statement from Amazon.