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Inside HBO Max's scramble to launch a massive bet on streaming

Meg James, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

Pairing Tony Soprano with Elmo and Chandler Bing was always going to be tricky.

Would the murderous mob boss befriend a red Muppet? Forget about it. Nor would Tony Soprano have much patience for the wiseguy antics of Chandler Bing, the neighbor from "Friends."

Yet here they are, pillars of a new streaming service, HBO Max, that rolls out Wednesday. Ever since telecommunications giant AT&T bought Time Warner nearly two years ago and renamed the company WarnerMedia, executives have been building toward this event. HBO Max's launch will be a watershed moment as a major Hollywood player for nearly a century attempts a high-wire pivot into a new media powerhouse.

But in figuring out how to market HBO Max, WarnerMedia executives confronted inherent conflicts. There are already three other HBO-branded products: HBO, the premium television channel; HBO Go, an app for subscribers to watch shows on the go; and HBO Now, a stand-alone service dedicated to the network's signature programming. How do you make the fourth, and possibly the grandest, iteration stand out, particularly in a pandemic?

To lure new customers, the company has long envisioned combining its signature HBO programs, such as "Game of Thrones," "The Sopranos" and "Succession," with more commercially oriented original shows and the deep Warner Bros. library of TV hits, cartoons and movies.

But the supermarket approach to HBO, which for years has operated as an island of excellence and sophistication, creates the risk of a disconnect for viewers: Queen Daenerys and her dragons from "Game of Thrones" coexisting with Dorothy and Scarecrow from "The Wizard of Oz," and Scooby-Doo, Tweety Bird and Elmer Fudd.

 

"The HBO brand has always been the premium brand in television," said Deana Myers, a research director at S&P Global Market Intelligence. "But now they are doing originals for HBO Max, including reality shows, that look nothing like an HBO show. I think they are going to confuse the brand."

Another challenge: The production shutdown caused by the coronavirus outbreak disrupted WarnerMedia's plans to have a robust slate of original programs to promote. Streaming services have found that originals are a key tool in recruiting new subscribers. When it goes live, HBO Max will offer just six fresh shows.

In addition, HBO Max will be offered at $14.99 a month, making it the priciest streaming service. Netflix's most popular plan is $13 a month. HBO Max's higher rate may discourage some consumers, given skyrocketing unemployment.

WarnerMedia has offered a teaser rate -- $11.99 a month for a year -- for customers who sign up before the May 27 launch.

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