You can’t swing a dead cat in the entertainment space these days without running into a headline about how the newly combined Warner Bros. Discovery — which owns HBO Max — has canceled a show that was in the planning stages. Or already was in production. Or had finished production but now will never see the light of day. Or canceled any future episodes or seasons of a strong show. Or left another in limbo. Or killed a weekly news show that was more important than not. Or unceremoniously removed hundreds of episodes from literally the most important children’s series in the history of television.
Fine. That’s business. The newly combined Warner Bros. Discovery reportedly is trying to shave a mere $3 billion off the balance sheet, and cuts of content and people were always going to happen.
But you don’t have to be a math major to look at the recent promotions coming from HBO Max before you scratch your head a little. Nor does it take graduate-level courses to reach the following question: Does HBO Max think you’re dumb?
It’s hard to reconcile the bloodletting at HBO Max — again, both in things to watch and the people who make those things — with the act of desperation you’ll find in your inbox and atop the HBO Max homepage. HBO Max is offering a pretty steep discount when you pre-pay for a year. And who among us wouldn’t be tempted by the cry to “save over 40%” on the first year of service? (After that, things bump back up from $105 without ads to $150, or from $70 to $100 if you don’t mind advertising.)
It’s one thing to save some money with annual subscriptions. I’d actually argue against that in the current age of streaming unless you’re 100% sure that you’re going to get your money’s worth month after month. But that requires a commitment not just on your part, but on the content provider’s part as well.
Take, for instance, the fourth season of Westworld, which just wrapped up. It did so in a way that absolutely could set up a fifth (and almost certainly final) season. Or it could simply fade away, like a host who’s lost its pearl. Snowpiercer will end after its fourth season. Original animation is all but dead.
And that’s just barely scraping the surface of all the cuts HBO Max has made public so far — certainly there are others we don’t even know about.
Then you have to consider the fact that the 2020/2021 strategy of pushing major movies to HBO Max ahead of (or instead of) a theatrical release is done and gone. It’s back to the usual moneymaking scheme of theater first, then digital (rent or buy), and then streaming (watch whenever). That’s three ways to bring in money. And from the standpoint of Warner Bros. Discovery, it makes sense. But from the POV of someone who just wants to watch a thing sooner rather than later, it hurts a little.
Lest anyone think I’m being unfair to poor, poor HBO Max, which has absolutely been through a lot lately, it’s worth noting that the 40%-off promotion comes right as the Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon premieres. So it makes complete sense, from a marketing standpoint, to get more people in.
On the other hand, the premiere once again proved that the existing HBO Max infrastructure isn’t up to the task. And now they’re asking you to pay for a year in advance, while we’re still a year out from the launch of the combined HBO Max/Discovery service?
That’s a tough pill to swallow in what has been a series of hiccups, gurgles, burps, and outright expulsion of the brand equity that HBO used to have.
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