Stream Time is where Tom's Guide senior editor Henry T. Casey dives into the big choices we make about streaming media. We tackle it all, from the best and worst streaming services and devices, to the never-ending list of shows to watch.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect HBO's June 2 announcement that original HBO content will not be getting ads.
HBO Max will have ads — if you want them. Starting in June, the WarnerMedia-owned streaming service will offer a cheaper $9.99 per month discount, going down 33% from its standard $14.99 per month package. But there's a big catch (or two) at hand.
While most ad-supported streaming services have integrated these commercials in a natural way — for Peacock and Paramount Plus ads are their way of life — HBO Max faces a weirder challenge, and takes away from its subscribers. And it feels like a big enough issue that I'd wait for 2022 before I even considered it.
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Why HBO Max's ad-supported tier is happening
First, let's break down why HBO is finally giving into ads. Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst at ComScore, told me "it's a way for the streamers to garner more audience or to gain more subscribers. And... that once you subscribe, it's sort of a set it and forget it kind of thing."
HBO Max is also betting that these customers will be enticed to upgrade, he notes, saying that some could "fall in love after that first day and you decide to go all in and pay the additional cost." Naturally, he said, "that's a win as well."
Admittedly, there's a section of the HBO Max pie where ads make sense. Think about HBO Max as two halves: the HBO originals and then the Max. The latter contains everything they brought in like Big Bang Theory, Friends and the rest. And while filling HBO Max with ads makes sense for the TV content in the Max half — it doesn't for the HBO originals. Which is why we're happy to hear HBO announce that "Additionally, ads will not play during HBO programming."
But HBO Max's ads don't make sense
HBO has a tight rope to walk for where and when it places ads. Take it from me, someone who is watching original WWE programming on Peacock, which has manually created ad-breaks where they were not before.
Dergarabedian agrees that this could be trouble, telling me "I think a big part of this is how are the ads integrated, which I think is a big part of this. I've literally had to turn off some streaming stuff because it kept repeating the same three ads at three, five or ten minutes. And it drove me off the platform."
WarnerMedia, at its upfront event last week, claimed that HBO Max would feature the "lightest ad-load in the industry," meaning the commercial breaks will hopefully be really short. That said, Warner is looking to innovate with ads, the kind of sentiment that always seems to wind up going wrong.
In HBO Max's example, we're getting Pause Ads — so you'll see an ad when you pause the TV. That may be easy to ignore in the moment, but it just reminds me of Amazon's "Special Offers," the ads on its Kindle e-readers and Fire tablets that you have to pay to get rid of.
HBO Max's ads undercut its biggest special feature
And then there's the other big asterisk with HBO Max with ads. You lose access to big Warner Pictures movies, released in 30-day windows that start on the same day they hit theaters.
And I'm not talking about HBO Max as an alternative to the theater. The big thing here, if you ask me, is the ability to rewatch new movies that you saw in theaters and loved.
I really hope anyone signing up for ad-free HBO Max knows that it won't have these movies. The app will probably give you the option to upgrade, but when these films are one of HBO Max's key differentiators (unless you really love Friends), this is a tough call.
When the likes of Netflix, Disney Plus, Hulu, Peacock and Paramount Plus already have a ton of TV to watch, how is HBO Max really standing out? Sure, it's got a ton of Criterion Collection and Studio Ghibli films, but I doubt those are gonna be a great fit with ads either.
Bottom line: The price is wrong
Lastly, let's talk about price. The big reason why ad-supported tiers is to lure people in at a more affordable level. But HBO Max's ad-supported package costs $9.99 per month. That's twice as much as the ad-supported Paramount Plus ($4.99, with no live CBS stations), and $4 more than Peacock and Hulu's $5.99 per month ad-supported tiers.
Personally, I like HBO Max's library more than any of its ad-supported competitors. And that's why I pay for the ad-supported Peacock and Hulu (I don't get as annoyed at disruptions on those services). Those who don't like the HBO Max library enough to pay full price may like the ad-supported tier's lower investment, but when it costs $9.99? The same price as the no-ads versions of Paramount Plus and Peacock? That's a hard ask.
This is made harder by the fact that none of these services do a great job of telling potential subscribers how many shows and movies they offer. Peacock claims "hundreds of movies" and "bingeworthy TV," along with sports and news, while Hulu boasts "thousands of shows and movies."
I guess HBO Max is just betting that people see its content as more valuable. That's why its entry-level $14.99 price is that much more expensive. But will it still be as compelling without the big movies, and with ads in HBO shows where they don't belong? I guess we'll find out when WarnerMedia reveals the sign-up numbers.
But for now, HBO Max with ads sounds a lot less interesting for today, and a bit more understandable for 2022. By then, HBO Max won't be getting movies at the same day as theaters, and so the difference between the content you get on the tiers won't be as glaring.
Be sure to check out my guides to the best streaming devices (and best streaming services) for more recommendations. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment below with anything you’d like to see me cover in the streaming world — I might just address it in a future installment.
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