“With a seamless customer experience, nearly 5 million HBO streamers currently access their subscription through Amazon’s Prime Video Channels,” a company spokesman said in a statement. “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 though the method you’re already using. That’s just good customer service and that’s a priority for us.”
WarnerMedia has quickly piled up a number of distribution deals for HBO Max, which launched just after midnight on Wednesday. On launch day, it announced a pact with Comcast, leaving Roku and Amazon as the biggest remaining gaps to be filled.
Customer education is a key aspect to the $15-a-month HBO Max proposition. While many current subscribers will be able to get it at no additional charge, AT&T is not immediately phasing out HBO Now, a stand-alone streaming version of HBO.
In 2014, which seems like a different planet given the current rush toward direct-to-consumer streaming, HBO’s then-parent Time Warner reached a lucrative licensing deal that included access to HBO Go, the streaming version of HBO available to pay-TV subscribers. That deal was followed by Amazon Channels access to HBO Now, which today accounts for about 50% of HBO’s total stand-alone subscriber tally. Like CBS All Access, Starz and other services, HBO Now reached millions of subscribers by agreeing to third-party distribution via Amazon, Roku, Apple and other digital clearinghouses.
Wall Street analysts like LightShed Partners’ Rich Greenfield have highlighted the growing tension between media and tech companies during the streaming boom over which party controls the customer experience and data. “With all of the content (both legacy HBO and new Max content) available within the new HBO Max interface,” Greenfield wrote in a recent blog post, “we suspect consumers will simply use the HBO Max app as their starting point. In essence, any Amazon channel store involvement is an interim step to full freedom one day, which will be made easier as HBO Max subs grow and HBO Max exclusive content expands. Obviously, this is not what Amazon wants.”
AT&T CEO John Stankey, a key architect of HBO Max during his time overseeing WarnerMedia before taking the top job at AT&T this spring, signaled the impasse with Amazon during an appearance this month at a Wall Street conference.
In a CNBC interview Wednesday, Stankey said he finds it “a bit ironic” that two tech players are the notable holdouts on HBO Max carriage. The theory of the government’s antitrust lawsuit seeking to block the AT&T-Time Warner deal, he recalled, was that owning Time Warner would give AT&T unfair distribution advantages. “The concern was about withholding content from traditional distributors,” he said. The fact that now two influential tech players are publicly venting about AT&T “shows you how fast the markets are moving and how we have to respond to those changes.”
In a statement provided to Deadline, a WarnerMedia rep said the company is “thrilled” by the range of distribution partners at launch. “We look forward to reaching agreements with the few outstanding distribution partners left, including with Amazon and on par with how they provide customers access to Netflix, Disney+ and Hulu on Fire devices,” it added.
HBO Max is the most recently launched of five well-funded new challengers to streaming incumbents like Netflix and Amazon. It joins new subscription offerings from Disney, Apple, NBCUniversal and Quibi.
The contretemps with Amazon is not the first time the tech giant has jousted with a media player entering the streaming fray. Disney only reached a deal with Amazon for carriage of Disney+ just few days before it launched last November.
In a statement furnished to Deadline Wednesday, a Roku rep said in a statement that the company believes HBO Max “would benefit greatly from the scale and content marketing capabilities available with distribution on our platform.” For now, the parties have not been able to lock in a “mutually positive” deal, the statement continued, “we look forward to helping HBO Max in the future successfully scale their streaming business.”