While it hasn’t used the slogan in a long time, people of a certain age remember when HBO was more than just a network. Instead, the company’s message was “It’s Not TV. It’s HBO.”
Ever since debuting in the ‘70s as Home Box Office, the company has presented itself as a prestige product. Sure, you have to pay a bit more, but you’ll get the stuff you can’t see on free television
The company initially made its name in the ’70s with high-profile, exclusive content such as the “Thrilla in Manila,” between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier (often called one of the single greatest boxing matches ever) and comedian George Carlin’s you-definitely-can’t-say-that on TV specials, which helped establish the network as a place where anything goes.
It also quickly established itself as the place for discerning filmgoers. HBO famously aired Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” near constantly in 1977, and the exposure is ultimately credited with helping the film to win the Best Picture Oscar. (Though these days, HBO might like it if we all forgot about that.)
Then the '90s and the '00s came, and shows like "The Sopranos," "The Wire' and "Sex And the City" showed the brand offered something you couldn't find anywhere else. HBO was now a prestige product, and wasn't shy about letting you know that.
Now, it’s not as if HBO doesn’t still have premium sports events, comedy specials and films. You could even argue it has more of that than ever.
But ever since AT&T (T) turned HBO’s streaming service HBO Go into HBO Max, a stand-alone repository for pretty much everything in the HBO and Time Warner Media empire and a would-be competitor to Netflix (NFLX) , the essential nature of HBO has, depending on how you view it, either been lost or has changed.
And a new change to the service underlines just how different the new HBO is these days.
How HBO Went To The Max In The Streaming Wars
When Netflix and Hulu (DIS) launched, they originally relied on licensing old films and television shows to fill their catalog. Eventually, the networks realized that Netflix had become one of their main competitors, built largely on top of access to their material, and began developing their own streaming service.
HBO’s story is a bit different. While it would occasionally license out the odd series to Amazon Prime (AMZN) , it generally kept its content in house.
Once Smart TVs and devices like Apple TV made streaming apps popular, HBO introduced its on demand service HBO Go in 2010, initially through Verizon (VZ) but other providers soon started carrying it. The service allowed consumers to stream its catalog of series (barring a few where rights issues had to be worked out, as “The Larry Sanders Show” wasn’t on the service for years), special and whatever films were currently airing on HBO.
It was technically HBO’s streaming service, but it wasn’t necessarily viewed as the channel’s answer to Netflix, but more of an extension of the HBO brand in total.
But that began to change in 2016 when WarnerMedia was acquired by AT&T, which had plans to build a media conglomerate and launch a true streaming rival to Netflix. WarnerMedia owned everything from HBO to CNN to the Cartoon Network and Turner Classic Movies to more decidedly down-market networks like TBS, as well as plenty of shows it produced for rival networks, which is why there’s the “South Park” catalog on the service.
And all of it was available to consumers when HBO Max officially launched in the summer of 2020 to a quarantined public desperate for something to watch.
What Is The Latest Change To HBO Max?
HBO Max has introduced an its advertising supported tier, according to WarnerMedia which costs $9.99 per month, compared with $14.99 a month for the current advertising-free version.
This will allow HBO Max to up its profit margin (advertisers have long dreamed of getting in front of HBO’s upscale users) and offer its streaming service at a lower price point, hopefully reaching new subscribers.
While the service is doing well for itself with 73.8 million global subscribers as of the end of 2021, the company would no doubt love to hit the triple digits like Netflix (222 million) and Disney (118.1).
Anyone who still watches the old-fashioned HBO channel won’t have to deal with ads, but for people with the ad-supported tier, one ad will run before a movie starts, with no further commercial interruption. This is starting to become a micro-trend, as both Paramount+ (VIAB) and Peacock (CCZ) offer both ad-supported and ad-free versions, and Disney+ recently announced a cheaper advertiser supported version.
Is HBO Max Losing Its HBO-Ness?
It’s a fairly common story these days. A gigantic company buys a merely big company, and then seems to have no idea what made it special in the first place. It’s a tale at least as old as Fox running MySpace into the ground.
While no one is accusing AT&T of something on that level, it is fair to ask if an essential essence of HBO has been lost in the rush to compete with Netflix.
Sometimes part of a brand’s prestige is what it doesn’t offer. For example, an upscale cocktail bar likely won’t have Budweiser on tap or show whatever football game is on. Is that elitist? That's a fair argument, but the bar is trying to present an aesthetic and you can go elsewhere if you want something else.
Similarly, HBO was partially appealing based on what it didn’t do.
There was a time when the idea of HBO having ads was unthinkable. But there was also a time when the idea of HBO’s streaming service carrying a (and this is an observation, not a criticism) down-the-middle, mass-appealing network sitcom like “Friends” would have been unthinkable. Heck, HBO existed for people who thought they were above “Friends.” (Again, this was HBO’s stated marketing strategy and not an aesthetic judgment.)
But times have changed, and HBO Max needs to appeal to everyone, and not just people who pride themselves on upmarket tastes. So you can still find plenty of critically acclaimed films on the service as well as the sort of cutting-edge television programs that only HBO would make, such as the critically acclaimed “Station Eleven.”
At the moment, the HBO that viewers long loved still exists, but they have to wade through a lot of content to find and share it with a lot more people, as that’s what today’s marketplace demands. But in the rush to compete with Netflix, will HBO Max lose sight of what the brand has always stood for?