HBO Max Has Reached 12.6 Million Activations, AT&T CEO John Stankey Reports, With Engagement Up 36% In Past Month

HBO Max John Stankey
CEO of WarnerMedia John Stankey Presley Ann/WarnerMedia

HBO Max, which closed the third quarter at 8.6 million activated subscribers in the U.S., has added another four million to reach 12.6 million as of early December, according to AT&T CEO John Stankey.

In a keynote appearance today at the UBS Global TMT Virtual Conference, the executive said total hours of engagement have also risen 36% in the past 30 days. While he didn’t elaborate on how many hours that added up to, Stankey cited programming like HBO’s The Undoing and HBO Max original The Flight Attendant.

AT&T will report its fourth-quarter financial results, as well as updated streaming numbers, in January. Stankey said the company is “pleased” with the progress toward its stated goal of 50 million U.S. subscribers and 75 million to 90 million globally by 2025. “We’re actually ahead of plan,” he said.

Stankey also addressed the game-changing move by Warner Bros to release its entire 2021 slate on HBO Max at the same time it is available in theaters. He described it as a “win-win-win” during Covid-19, providing theaters with films during the pandemic while also showcasing HBO Max and giving customers options.

The company made the dramatic decision because of the “psyche of the population” during the pandemic and the likelihood of a longer return to theaters and other public spaces. “Snowplowing all theatrical content into late-2021 and early-2022 probably isn’t going to help anybody,” he said.

Asked by moderator and UBS analyst John Hodulik about the blowback from Hollywood’s talent community and the exhibition business, Stankey said, “We’re all participants in a market that serves customers. The longer-term impacts are going to be dictated by what consumers wish to do.”

He said the move acknowledges “the reality of where markets are going right now” in the movie business. “Customers have a tremendous amount of choice as to how they choose to engage with content. If we just simply sit here and say, ‘This is about whether or not people go to movie theaters,’ I think we’re missing the broader point. Today, even before WarnerMedia made this decision, customers could go watch great, two-hour content on a variety of competitive services … some of them very significant releases. Customers are going to drive what happens in a market, ultimately.”

As to the post-pandemic world and whether studio release patterns will return to some semblance of the previous ones, Stankey said the company will “adjust and work the model differently.” Overall, though “having choice” will remain a constant, he predicted. “We’re not putting one over the other,” Stankey said of theatrical and streaming. “This to me seems like a very friendly and innovative approach.”

HBO Max has gotten off to a much slower start than other direct-to-consumer streaming services. Disney+ has reached almost 74 million global subscribers in its first year, already ahead of its initial targets. It was the last of a handful of billion-dollar outlets to reach the market as traditional media companies increasingly look to close the gap with Netflix and enter the direct-to-consumer space.

Confusion over who can get access to HBO Max has been a marketing and communications challenge, executives have conceded behind the scenes even though Stankey has described the rollout as “flawless.” Only about 30% of U.S. subscribers to HBO have exercised their right to activate access to HBO Max at no extra charge.

At $15 a month, HBO Max is at the high end of the price scale. (Apple and Disney came to market at $5 and $7 a month, for example.) WarnerMedia and AT&T executives have repeatedly emphasized that it is a general entertainment service with dozens of original films and TV shows and a deep library.

Stankey said the price point helps in terms of a key metric in streaming: average revenue per user. While the initial subscriber base is smaller than rivals like Disney, he maintained (without naming names) that other companies have “a flip problem,” meaning a large footprint but lower ARPU. With Max, he said, “We’re not giving it away” and the decision was made to leverage the “big, embedded base of HBO” rather than start from scratch and try to scale a direct retail service.

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