Are AT&T’s HBO Max Ambitions Too Maxed Out?

Conglomerate is said to be targeting 50 million subscribers for new streaming service within five years. But compelling competition from the Disney+ bundle, not to mention a questionable track record in regard to launching video businesses, would seem to limit the promise
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Announcing an exclusive streaming deal with the BBC that includes popular UK series such as Doctor Who, Luther, Top Gear and the original iteration of The Office, AT&T’s press release for the pact effectively stated a fairly aggressive content agenda for a platform that is widely expected to cost users around $17 a month.

All the HBO stuff is there, including on-demand access to essentials like The Sopranos, Sex and the City and Game of Thrones. There are also Warner Brothers gems within the mix like Friends, still a very popular streaming asset for Netflix, at least for now until it gets pulled into HBO Max exclusively.

And AT&T listed some compelling originals series, too — the relaunch of Gossip Girl, another iteration of Dune, a 10 episode romantic anthology series from executive producers Anna Kendrick and Paul Feig, and an animated series version of the 1980s movie Gremlins, just to name a few.

Related: HBO Max Lands Exclusive Streaming Rights to ‘Doctor Who’ in BBC Content Deal

There’s exclusive movie production deals with Greg Berlanti and Reese Witherspoon. Other HBO Max content producers include Jordan Peele, J.J. Abrams, Jason Bateman, Misha Green, David E.Kelley and David Simon, among other well-knowns.

According to The Information, executives for AT&T’s WarnerMedia division, which is launching the service, have set some lofty internal goals for HBO Max, and they’re hoping to lock down 50 million subscribers within five years.

I don’t think it’s going to be easy to get there. Here’s why.

Disney+ will be tough to beat

For one, AT&T is hoisting its own highly anticipated kitchen-sink streaming gambit right up against The Walt Disney Company’s equally ambitious Disney+ launch. And so far, Disney has come up with the more compelling offer.

Related: Disney to Bundle Disney+, ESPN+ and Hulu for $12.99

Case in point was this week’s Disney bundle announcement. For the November launch of Disney+, the company is going to bundle the new service, which is $6.99 a month as a standalone, along with ESPN+ ($4.99 a month) and the partially ad-supported base tier of Hulu ($5.99), in a package that’s priced at $12.99 a month, a 27% discount.

For the price of Netflix’s most popular tier, users get access to the full Hulu SVOD smorgasbord, as well as the live sports options of ESPN+, which will certainly increase as major league rights deals expire, and Disney renews them with digital rights. WarnerMedia also has access to live sports, notably the NBA, Major League Baseball and NCAA basketball, through Turner Networks. But those aren’t included in the HBO Max bundle, at least not yet.

Then, of course, there’s Disney+

“Disney+ will ultimately become the exclusive streaming service for our vast library of movies and series, National Geographic content, all upcoming Disney, Pixar, Marvel and Star Wars movies and a robust slate of high-quality original programming from the creative engines that drive our entire company,” said Disney CEO Bob Iger, summing up the new platform to investors this week during the conglomerate’s second-quarter earnings call.

If Disney starts allowing customers to upgrade the bundle to, say, also include the Hulu virtual MVPD service at a marginal extra cost, watch out. The Disney+ offering can be positioned as the only streaming bill you’ll need to pay every month.

A legacy that’s enduring doesn’t necessarily tend to stay enduring

Like Netflix, HBO has a huge global subscriber base, around 140 million strong, and it has an original series legacy that’s second-to-none. So it's tough to bet against a brand led by HBO. 

But it's also tough to bet against Disney. And Netflix. And Apple. Someone, probably more than one major media-technology company, is not going to be successful at launching a zeitgeist-shifting SVOD platform. 

A decade ago, HBO’s brand notably survived a huge transition, moving from the Chris Albrecht era, which was hallmarked by such groundbreaking shows as Sex and the City, The Sopranos and The Wire, to the reign of the recently departed CEO Richard Plepler, who not only ushered in a new generation of hits, led by Game of Thrones, but also led HBO’s transition into digital distribution.

Not many programming brands can remain as relevant has HBO has under such a transition. Can it do it again, under new ownership?

The man now in charge of WarnerMedia's programming ambitions, former Showtime and NBC top creative executive Bob Greenblatt, would seem as capable as anyone of sustaining HBO’s run of water-cooler success.

But in what promises to be a TV creative market even further tightened and spread thin, with more emerging platforms than ever trying to build subscriber bases at the same time with hits, the success of the so-called “HBO Model” isn’t guaranteed for anyone, even the company that invented it.

This fall, you can watch tired zombie shows on AMC, and you can see what I mean. It’s hard for anyone to sustain a consecutive string of critical success, cultural impact … and audience usage.

A massively huge previous track record of video success?

Does AT&T’s headlong dive into the virtual pay TV business, followed by its subsequent retreat, tell us anything about its ability to be widely successful in the ultra-competitive SVOD business?

Maybe not. But maybe.

Less than three years ago—burnished by its $67.1 billion ground floor opportunity to enter into the exciting world of satellite TV delivery, and led by the guy who still serves as its entertainment chief, WarnerMedia CEO John Stankey—AT&T launched a new service that promised to disrupt, transform and generally blow minds.

For $35 a month, you could stream all the major basic cable and broadcast channels on any device you want. Sign up and cancel anytime.

Here we are, just 33 months later. The erstwhile DirecTV Now, once a flagship product that was going to grow like a weed amid the fertile soil of AT&T’s wireless and pay TV customer bases, is in full retreat, emaciated to only two-thirds of its peak size, cut off from the promotional fertilizer that once gave off the false impression of real consumer momentum.

AT&T has rebranded the service “AT&T Now,” and it is now being marginalized within a portfolio now led by HBO Max. 

Admittedly, a lot can happen between now and 2024. We'll see how it shakes out. 

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