I’m not mad, HBO Max, I’m just disappointed

If Disney+ stumbled out of the gate, HBO Max is falling flat on its face. Leading up to the Max launch, I have to admit I was pretty excited. Now, I find myself disappointed, frustrated, and not just a little bit incredulous.

Disney+ had its fair share of troubles at launch — there were crashes, long buffering times, login errors, episodes would not be able to recall their playback locations if streaming were halted. Not to mention it was difficult to find the content you wanted, and it wasn’t really clear who would be getting 4K HDR and who would not. But despite all these problems, at least it was available on all the major platforms and it certainly wasn’t having an identity crisis at its coming-out party. In contrast, from both a business and user perspective, HBO Max looks like a raging dumpster fire.

Availability on Roku and Amazon Fire TV

Let’s start with the most obvious and egregious issue, and that is a lack of a presence on Roku and Amazon Fire TV. Roku currently has around 30% of the streaming market with an estimated 39.8 million users, and, as such, makes up a massive percentage of the market that we would expect HBO wants to reach.

For the life of me, I cannot figure out a reason for this delay.

Amazon Fire devices own about 12% of the over-the-top (OTT) device market as of late 2019, but their January 2020 press release claimed the platform had passed 40 million active users, even more than Roku’s impressive numbers. Regardless of whether Roku or Amazon can claim to be king of the streaming castle, the regular users of each platform are not currently able to access HBO Max, a combined number of viewers that is likely a majority of the total streaming market — 80 million users is a huge number.

With Amazon, the issue appears to be a disagreement over how HBO Max is delivered. Amazon wants to control how HBO Max content is served to its users, while HBO is demanding that it simply be an app on Amazon Fire TV. “With a seamless customer experience, nearly 5 million HBO streamers currently access their subscription through Amazon’s Prime Video Channels,” an Amazon spokeswoman told CNET. “Unfortunately, with the launch of HBO Max, AT&T is choosing to deny these loyal HBO customers access to the expanded catalog.

“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.”

But with Roku, the viewing experience should be extremely straightforward and mirror the status quo of the platform in place for other streaming services including both HBO Go and HBO Now. That is to say, there should be an HBO Max app that can be added to the Roku home screen that, when you click it, you simply start streaming. What is the problem there? Is it about money? Does Roku want a bigger take of the subscription costs than HBO is willing to give? The answer is unclear.

“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 OTT 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,” a Roku representative said.

“Unfortunately we haven’t reached agreement yet with HBOMax. While not on our platform today, we look forward to helping HBO Max in the future successfully scale their streaming business.”

From an optics perspective, it would have been better to delay the HBO Max rollout than to not launch with the two most important streaming partners on the market.

No 4K HDR

I want to be clear: I am not just being some sort of diva by saying that I demand all the pretty things for my super-fancy TV. I am just saying that if you’re going to charge $15 a month, more than double what Disney plus charges (admittedly for a lot of content), and you’re going to hoard all these blockbuster movies from Warner Brothers while making them exclusive to your platform, then you should deliver them in the best possible way.

Movies that are begging to presented in 4K HDR and are available as such on 4K Ultra HD Blu-Ray, like Aquaman, Wonder Woman, or even Moulin Rouge, are only being delivered in standard HD with HBO Max. This is of course disappointing, and we can speculate about why they might not have decided to offer higher resolution with their launch. Offering 4K does take a lot more bandwidth, and I’m sure there was a concern that it could choke up the pipes and degrade the user experience. A valid concern of course, but something that you test for prior to launch. It is the job of the content provider to work with streaming partners to assure that the content delivery networks are in line and ready to handle the load so that 4K is not a problem. As far as HDR is concerned, it takes no bandwidth at all. You can have it in 720p for crying out loud.

If not offering 4K HDR was the standard, its exclusion from Max would not be a big deal. Unfortunately, it is the standard since all of HBO Max’s competitors have it. Disney+, a brand-new platform without the streaming history HBO has, had it at launch and managed to pull it off. Given the market, I see no reason why you should not get that premium delivery when you’re paying such a premium price.

Identity crisis

HBO feels like an old-school network trying to figure out how to emulate Netflix. As a result, they don’t seem to have a strong grasp on who or what they are. Is HBO a channel that you subscribe to that you get through cable or satellite, or is it a streaming service that does on-demand delivery of original and contracted titles? Or is it HBO Max, which is everything that HBO is or was plus all this other content? Beyond that, does HBO Max replace HBO Now? Why is Now still in existence? And if subscribing to HBO through most cable subscribers grants you access to HBO Max, then why does HBO Go still exist?

Since the subscription prices are the same, who doesn’t want everything that HBO has to offer? Why would a consumer take the more basic version like Now or Go if it is an option to get the expanded version, Max, which it is?

Pouring salt on the wound is a host of sporadic bugs, from reports that beyond episode six of season five of Doctor Who, everything is in Spanish dub, to others reporting that all subtitles are in Spanish with no option to adjust them.

One user had a particularly frustrating experience when the HBO Now app on his Samsung TV automatically changed to HBO Max but locked him out, claiming his internet service provider was not a provider of HBO Max. Since HBO Now is no longer on the Samsung App Store, he lost all access to HBO and was told by customer service he needed to cancel.

Anecdotally, I could not download Max to my iPhone until I deleted all HBO apps off my phone first, since it seemed to think the apps were the same coming out of the App store and urged me to “Update” instead of install, despite the update button doing nothing. If I were a standard HBO customer, I would likely have assumed this was not a bug, but a feature and believe that Max and Now shared all the same content (which they do not).

Another Digital Trends editor received a notification from HBO that her Now subscription was being rolled into Max. It appears this means that, at least in this case, HBO is auto-converting a Now account into a Max account. This would not normally be a problem, but if HBO is converting customers from Now to Max and the way they watch HBO is on a Roku, Fire TV, or an LG Smart TV, for instance, they would be forced to lose their access to HBO until those platforms are supported.

Needless to say, the situation is very confusing, disjointed, and sometimes upsetting for a consumer.

Is this really going to end up hurting HBO?

I don’t know that HBO, which is more akin to a content farm than anything else, would have single-handedly made the decisions that were made here. I get the feeling that under the ownership of AT&T, HBO has kind of been forced to go down this path and been shoehorned into a space it may not have wanted to be.

If HBO were a new platform, these mistakes would be nigh unforgivable and we would see greater customer backlash. But because HBO is a storied service with a multiyear streaming history and a preexisting viewer base that has already delivered content viewers are addicted to, they can get away with what would otherwise sink a new platform. Can you imagine if Netflix asked an additional $5 for access to siloed content? There would be mass outrage. But because HBO was already asking a premium price that did not change with the addition of more content, it feels like a great deal.

HBO is likely insulated from notable blowback from this rollout because people are still going to want their next Game of Thrones or Westworld. HBO’s plans for more original series are only going to stoke greater interest in the platform.

As upset as we may be and for as underserved as HBO’s fans are right now, in the end, it’s not really going to matter. We love the content that HBO makes and to which it owns the rights — notably, content that is not available anywhere else. We as viewers are just going to have to wait for it to get better. How long that is going to take is anyone’s guess, but if HBO wants this to be nothing more than a tiny mark on its otherwise gleaming reputation, it will have to address this gap in the market soon.

I think it can get away with not having 4K HDR for a little while, as it is a bonus (though one you should absolutely be getting for $15 a month), but how long can the feud with Roku last? It can’t really consider HBO Max a success until it’s on the Roku platform. It’s not just the people with the Roku box or Roku stick, it’s anyone who bought a TCL TV and relies on Roku to access their content. If you own a Playstation 4 or an Xbox you could use that, but it’s unlikely anyone is going to buy a gaming console or a Samsung Smart TV just to have access to HBO Max.

We are dealing with an entity so big and with so much content that we want, that we are basically being told to “deal with it” because we have no other choice. If we want that content — and we do want it — we are just going to have to put up with the problems. It feels like every time your wireless carrier told you to suck it up and deal with a problem. The “tough luck, you’re under contract” mentality that infuriates customers but gives them no clear path to do anything other than obey.

Obviously, this is not making the list of real issues we are dealing with today, but rather it is one of the many outlets we use to escape the stressful problems of day-to-day life in 2020. Boiled down, I guess my thoughts on the matter are as follows: I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed.

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