HBO Max Unbound: WarnerMedia Delivers Stream-Centric Upfront Pitch, Promising More Bang For Ad Buck

WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar at the company's virtual upfront presentation to advertisers in May 2021. WarnerMedia

Unshackling itself from years of streaming and premium cable restraints, WarnerMedia offered a comprehensive upfront pitch commingling HBO and Warner Bros with the company’s linear TV networks.

From beginning to end, the hour-and-10-minute affair had a much different feel than previous, Turner-centric WarnerMedia upfronts. The opening sizzle reel — voiced by Issa Rae, star of HBO’s Insecure — included clips from the likes of The Sopranos, Game of Thrones and Judas and the Black Messiah, aka programming generally not known for being interrupted by commercials. Leslie Odom Jr., leading a song-and-dance number, extolled “a century of creation” at the company. While Turner and Warner Bros have shared a corporate parent for decades, the studio seldom earned a mention in the previous eras when pay-TV divisions operated in complete isolation from the movie studio and subscription-only HBO.

“You know us, but do you know who we are? Like, who we really are?” Rae asked. In a seeming nod to the crowded streaming field, full of services with “plus” symbols in their names, she continued, “We turned that ‘plus’ on its head, spun it sideways and stood it up. Now it’s got real power.”

The last letter of HBO Max’s name served as a motif and organizing principle for the show. Of course, there were star appearances and show clips and trailer reveals, and segments dedicated to CNN, Turner Sports and adult animation. But the big finish was the announcement of the pricing and timing of HBO Max’s ad-supported tier, which will go on the market in early June at $10 a month.

In a short segment added after news on Monday that WarnerMedia is set to merge with Discovery, Kilar said it is “business as usual” at the company. Then, in his remarks during the main show filmed on the Warner lot, he addressed progress in streaming over the past year. As of March 31, the company said HBO Max and linear HBO together had 44.2 million subscribers.

HBO Max Upfront: Deadline’s Complete Coverage

“We’re off to a tremendous start, and we plan to supercharge HBO Max’s already impressive growth this year, with your help, with the launch of the ad-supported version,” Kilar said. Streaming, he went on, will offer “the most brand-safe, elegant experience for advertisers that exists across all of television. This storied company goes far beyond most media businesses.”

Two years ago, at an in-person upfront event attended by execs at WarnerMedia parent AT&T, the company teased its entry into streaming. HBO Max at that point did not have a name and had already been delayed once. (Conan O’Brien’s suggested name: “Stankeyvision,” in honor of AT&T CEO John Stankey.) At the time, streaming meant Netflix, and Netflix made advertisers uneasy. It still does.

Today’s landscape is different, of course. NBCUniversal has Peacock, which is positioned as an ad vehicle. ViacomCBS relaunched CBS All Access as Paramount+, with an ad-supported tier that is $1 cheaper per month. Hulu continues to grow under Disney’s sole ownership, collecting more ad revenue than the company’s domestic broadcast and cable networks in the most recent quarter. Billions of ad dollars are pouring into streaming, with the main challenge for media companies being the task of balancing their legacy pay-TV businesses, which still throw off a ton of cash, with their streaming futures.

Jean-Paul “JP” Colaco, who joined WarnerMedia last fall as head of ad sales and was Kilar’s colleague at Hulu, told Deadline the process of arriving at the right HBO Max ad experience was “half-art and half-science.” While Turner had long operated “TV Everywhere” apps with ads, the direct-to-consumer world required a complicated tech buildout. There was the additional sensitivity of the brand name and the notion that upmarket HBO would be sullied by Madison Avenue. In the end, though execs explored it vigorously in 2018 and 2019 after AT&T closed the Time Warner acquisition, the decision was made to take a more measured approach to advertising.

“We’ve used science and we have a bunch of artists,” Colaco said with a chuckle. Both have combined to create what he calls an “elegant and unobtrusive ad experience.”

There are two important carve-outs on the cheaper tier of HBO Max. Subscribers won’t get access to day-and-date movies from Warner Bros in 2021, though the films will eventually wind up on the platform in later release windows. And HBO series, like the current drama Mare of Easttown, won’t carry ads, though Max Originals like The Flight Attendant will, along with most of the remaining 13,000 hours of programming.

On many streaming platforms, everything is for sale. Roku, for example, often books sponsored home-screen takeovers and other integrations, in addition to the linear inventory it manages on the Roku Channel.

“We will experiment with different types of ad experiences” on HBO Max, Colaco said, “but our strategy is a little more muted, a little bit more that advertising is additive and complementary to the experience.”

Rather than flooding the zone, he added, the goal is to “build the world’s most effective video advertising service. What that means is not the most in-your-face advertising experience.” With fewer ads, the strategic thinking goes, there will be better recall and impact for the spots that do appear.

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