In a panel appearance Tuesday at CES in Las Vegas, a pair of top WarnerMedia execs offered a few new insights into HBO Max, the company’s subscription streaming offering set to debut in May.
Chief Technology Officer Jeremy Legg and EVP and GM of Direct-to-Consumer Andy Forssell painted a somewhat more detailed picture of the $15-a-month service than was offered last October at the company’s investor day.
Legg said one of the goals of the new platform’s user experience will be to eliminate what he called the “endless scroll” of many existing streaming, through a mix of tech tools and human curation. Also, the aim is to target mobile devices with an interface that is more “swipey” and less grid-oriented than those of competitors. (“Is that a word?” he joked.)
Moderator Sara Fischer of Axios asked which shows could potentially get an infusion of energy on HBO Max, as You did when it moved from Lifetime to Netflix. “All of them,” Legg quipped.
“I don’t think we should focus just on that one direction,” Forssell said. “If you think about our mission writ large, we have tremendous creative talent at HBO and HBO Max, Warner Bros., the Turner networks. Their job is to find great creative, find the right audience and the right place for it. There are cases where you’ll see things where we’ll decide the right place for it is SVOD and there may be life for it on linear networks or elsewhere. You’ll see the reverse as well. You’re going to see it both directions. I think there is as much synergy there, more so than conflict.”
HBO Max will be the last major entrant into the roiling competition in streaming, a sector that has seen Apple and Disney launch major challenges to Netflix and other established players. NBCUniversal will debut Peacock in April.
One aspect of the HBO Max launch that remains unsettled is its distribution plan. Disney got early traction with Disney+ ahead of its November arrival by setting key bundles — one of them internal, a $13-a-month package with Hulu and ESPN+ — and the other a partnership with Verizon. Both arrangements helped Disney score 10 million sign-ups as of its first day on the market. “We’ll absolutely do that,” Forssell said. “Bundling, when it’s done right, is good for consumers and it’s good for people doing the bundle. It makes things stickier. You can bet that we’ll be aggressive.”
At the investor day, WarnerMedia chief and AT&T COO John Stankey said the company is in discussions with distribution partners, but no deals were announced beyond the existing AT&T pay-TV footprint.
Legg said the company is likely to “ease our way into” features such as interactivity, which Netflix has been starting to deploy more broadly, but those would come online down the road. “Right now, I think Andy and I just want to get it out the door in the spring,” he said.
In terms of subscriber targets, Forssell reaffirmed prior guidance that HBO Max is aiming to reach 50 million households in its first five years, but the executive team is also focusing on more than just the numbers. “The symbology is more important — we need to matter,” he said. “You do that by a count of how many people are obviously paying every month for the service. But you also do it through engagement. … It needs to matter to people and they need to use it, so we have some pretty stringent internal goals there. We’re being entrusted with a huge investment in this service” by WarnerMedia and its parent, AT&T.
In terms of benchmarks, Legg said one important benchmark the company has already cleared is handling 4.7 million concurrent streams of the Game of Thrones finale last spring. That should enable HBO Max to weather the storm once it is up and running — unlikely Disney+, whose successful debut was marred by tech glitches on Day 1.
Fischer began with a non-tech question, checking in on the state of HBO in the wake of former chief Richard Plepler’s departure (with the exec recently surfacing as a producer with a multi-year deal at Apple). Forssell’s characterization of the post-Plepler team: “awesome.”
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