HBO Max is finally here, but do you need it?

HBO Max is here
(Image credit: Future)

Today (May 27), HBO Max launched in the U.S. as WarnerMedia's big play in the ever-crowded streaming market. While we've been watching the platform grow from rumor to reality, its arrival can't help but spark a bit of confusion. 

Why do we need another HBO? Isn't regular HBO (via either HBO Now or HBO Go) enough? And how does HBO Max fit into the pack? 

When we started pondering HBO Max, the first thing on our minds was how it fit into the streaming landscape, something we tackled in our HBO Max vs Netflix face-off. 

So, as you're likely going to be inundated with opportunities to sign up for HBO Max in the coming weeks, let's dive into what the channel is, and how it will differ from the HBO you already pay for (or the one on which you used to watch Jon Snow and Khaleesi).

HBO Max explained

Most people with whom I've talked about HBO Max don't think about the handful of original shows or acquired films that HBO's using to draw people in. Their confusion centers around how the new app fits into the bigger HBO family. If you've read my HBO Max vs HBO Go vs HBO Now explainer, you'll notice that HBO's doing the heavy lifting for some HBO Now members, transitioning them over to HBO Max. That's good, right? They get more content, and HBO does all the work. Other HBO subscribers have a more complicated road to travel. 

The easy-to-understand news is that HBO Max has the same $14.99 per month price as HBO's other standalone apps. At an investor event, WarnerMedia exec John Stankey referred to the decision to switch from HBO Go or HBO Now as an "IQ test." You like your HBO, right? Why not get more content for the same amount of money?

And, yes, as our HBO Max June 2020 schedule lays out, some movies and shows will be available on both platforms. Of course, HBO Max is the way to get it all. You want it all, right, Freddie Mercury?

Why should you care about HBO Max?

To explore this situation, I got on the phone with Paul Dergarabedian, a Senior Media Analyst at Comscore, to talk about the HBO Max situation just days before its launch. 

"I think the timing of [HBO Max] is solid," he said, "a lot of people are at home right now and hungry for content." 

1 free year of HBO Max

New AT&T TV or AT&T TV + Internet subscribers can get 1 free year of HBO Max. The service requires annual membership and includes AMC, Bravo, CNN, Comedy Central, Disney Channel, ESPN and FX. Google Assistant compatibility is included with the remote.

As Dergarabedian and I talked, we focused on how HBO Max stands out in a crowded market: how will HBO Max succeed like Disney Plus, while avoiding a Quibi-like launch? He told me that — at the moment — the platform isn't standing out for what's new, but by being a library: 

"It's just yet another platform to deliver a lot of great content, but I think the most significant thing about it is the HBO originals that people can watch," he said, referencing shows like The Sopranos and Six Feet Under. "Think of the number of Emmy nominations among them!" 

To which I replied, "You know, shows that are already on HBO." And this got me thinking about the big uphill fight that HBO Max has ahead of itself. As of today, the platform has a single-digit tally of exclusive original shows. And while our Love Life review gave some positive notes to the HBO Max Original, the show doesn't appear to be a must-watch.

I watched the first few episodes of The Not Too Late Show with Elmo, and while I found it amusing, it doesn't feel like a big hit show that will drive subscriptions — though I'm not the parent of a child who demands more Elmo. 

HBO Max is here

(Image credit: HBO Max)

Fantastic originals, that take over the watercooler — "the reason why many people would add HBO to their subscriptions in the original model," as Dergarabedian told me — might be necessary for HBO Max to feel like the HBO we fell in love with. 

Why is HBO Max happening?

If HBO Max is keeping the same price, why couldn't HBO just get bigger and brawnier to compete with the giant Disney Plus library and the even more diverse set of options at Netflix. I've got a couple ideas, the most obvious being that WarnerMedia thought they needed to do better to compete. A new service with a name that suggests a lot of content, like HBO Max, was better than just improving HBO as it already was. 

The other possible angle is that HBO may want more control over its subscriber base. If enough HBO Go members switch from paying their cable provider to paying HBO directly for Max, that gives HBO more control over the subscribers' viewing habits.

When I asked Dergarabedian about my theory, he declined to say whether he agreed or not, but moved the conversation to the fight for attention that HBO Max is entering into: 

"I think the issue with every one of these types of subscription based platforms, consumers are met with a daunting array of options, Apple TV Plus, Disney Plus, it's fantastic for the consumer to have this many options, but it's becoming rather daunting, it's a lot to wrap your mind around — for how to partake in all this content, what does this new platform offer me that I can't get anywhere else?"

They're going to be asking that question a lot, as each of these services add up to an overall bill that subtracts a lot from the bank account, or forces people to cut content to avoid prices similar to the cable bills we used to pay. 

"It becomes a little confusing to consumers," Dergarabedian noted, before talking about how the multitude of HBO apps create an ecosystem that subscribers need to grok.

HBO Max's biggest launch day titles and future goals

For me, HBO Max is delivering one big collection of content that we've needed on streaming services for years: Hayao Miyazaki's animated movies from Studio Ghibli. Many folks feel the same way about getting Friends back on a streaming service, considering how much HBO paid for the rights. 

That being said, I wish I didn't need a new subscription service for either of those. Ghibli movies are currently on Netflix internationally, where Friends used to be. But this isn't up to us to decide. 

The streaming public, however, will play a major role in deciding who wins and who leaves. Dergarabedian told me, "Over time, each one of these is going to have to carve out its own identity, both from a content perspective and a use perspective."

The latter perspective is where HBO can be seen as needing to play ball with platforms more than it may want. For example, HBO Max is going to get full Apple TV integration, meaning the service's shows will appear in the Apple TV app.

HBO Max changes what HBO means

From its days as the Home Box Office to today, HBO has changed quite a lot over the years. And HBO Max looks to change things even more. As John Oliver joked (on his own HBO show, Last Week Tonight), "it's not HBO, it's just TV."

Dergarabedian dug into the brand identity of HBO with me, saying, "People associate HBO, particularly their original content, with a certain type and style of show. Usually that means no restrictions, if you look at recent examples like Game of Thrones and classic HBO shows like Oz and Sopranos." 

And so far, it feels like we're seeing more Max than HBO. We moderately enjoyed Love Life, and while it did have some nudity and adult language, it doesn't feel like a show that had to be on HBO. It even feels like it could have been on Hulu, as my colleague Kelly Woo puts it, "like a not-as-good Normal People." Similarly, The Not-Too-Late-Show with Elmo definitely feels like it could run just before Jimmy Fallon on regular TV.

Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily, if HBO Max has stuff that people want to watch. The Justice League Snyder Cut has a vociferous audience demanding its release, and on the other side of the art and pop culture spectrum, the Studio Ghibli films have a cult-like following, too.

"Is it a dilution of the brand to have too much content," Dergarabedian asked, "or is it a big plus to offer everything from soup to nuts?" That's the big issue at the center of the HBO Max launch. Of course, we don't have a crystal ball, he said: "We won't really know [up front], we have to figure that out over time. Netflix evolved over time, they used to be the company that sent you movies in the mail."

HBO Max outlook

Time will tell if HBO Max can stand toe-to-toe with Netflix, or if it will just create even more churn in the subscription service market. As it stands today, Dergarabedian thinks HBO Max's success will be decided by whether the service has a must-watch show. If it doesn't, he notes, "people are going to start figuring out where they need to cut corners, what services they need, which are essentials."

You can learn from me, dear friends, as I've spent the last few years managing half-a-dozen memberships with a wide variety of niche streaming services, each from a different pro wrestling company. I set a reminder every time I start a new subscription, for 27 days from the day I subscribe. Then, I get a reminder asking me if I think I still need that service. 

If HBO Max is a success, I won't even have to think twice, and I'll delete the reminder. I never think twice about Netflix. It's just there.

Henry T. Casey
Managing Editor (Entertainment, Streaming)

Henry is a managing editor at Tom’s Guide covering streaming media, laptops and all things Apple, reviewing devices and services for the past seven years. Prior to joining Tom's Guide, he reviewed software and hardware for TechRadar Pro, and interviewed artists for Patek Philippe International Magazine. He's also covered the wild world of professional wrestling for Cageside Seats, interviewing athletes and other industry veterans.