HBO Max needs to fix this one big problem now

HBO Max
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

I want to love HBO Max, but it won't let me. 

Last year saw HBO Max thrive on the content side, thanks to WarnerMedia's decision to bring big theatrical movies to the service on the same day those movies hit theaters, because of how theaters were closing during the Covid-19 pandemic's early days. Dubbed "Project Popcorn," this decision was met with a big embrace from audiences, and an equally negative reaction from filmmakers such as Christopher Nolan. We at Tom's Guide loved this decision, and soon placed HBO Max at the top of our best streaming service rankings.

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HBO's core competency has been, and probably will forever be, the quality of its programming. I was reminded of this on Monday, (January 3) when I started the HBO Max original series Station Eleven. This grim, but slightly hopeful, adaptation of Emily St. John Mandel's story of humanity before, during and after a flu pandemic wipes out 98% of the human population, had me hooked.

Or at least it did until the HBO Max app got in the way.

HBO Max goes down, down, down

HBO Max works well often enough for everyone to know it's not some fly-by-night operation run on Ethereum and a hope. It's just that when it breaks (and it does), users who are used to this happening think "oh, not again!" This is a slightly unique issue, because outages in competing streaming services are much more rare. Netflix was one of many services impacted by a Dec. 7, 2021 Amazon Web Services outage, but those who know enough knew that wasn't a Netflix bug but an Amazon issue.

The bigger HBO Max brouhahas, such as the issues in June 2021 with the HBO Max Apple TV app, get a lot of coverage. That same month, we saw another outage.

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Other times these outages get less attention, such as reports of issues on Android TV (opens in new tab) on Dec. 21 that caused screens to go black (opens in new tab). HBO Max is aware of these issues, and has been working on them (as was documented in Josef Adalian's report in Vulture (opens in new tab)), but they keep happening.

To get a second opinion on this, I called up Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for Comscore, who said that it's all about frequency. Even though, he notes "a micro-crisis can feel like a macro-crisis in the moment," it's all about "the difference between an anomaly or a trend, and that everyone has their own acceptable levels." Because, he notes "When I want to watch Cobra Kai, it better be there."

This was the case I ran into on Monday (Jan. 3), as I finished the first episode of Station Eleven only to find HBO Max unable to play episode 2 (at approximately 12 p.m. ET). Check it out for yourself:

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I almost went right back to Yellowjackets (whose second episode I had yet to start), but I didn't want to. All I wanted to do was learn what happened to Jeevan and Kirsten in Station Eleven. So, I fiddled around, and then tried waiting it out, doing little chores and other bits of housekeeping. 

Then thought of something: I could try another streaming device. Yes, unlike most people, I have nearly every single streaming device in my apartment. And since I thought the problem could be contained within the Apple TV app, I unplugged my Apple TV 4K and plugged in the excellent Roku Ultra (2020), and found that HBO Max was working there (around an hour (opens in new tab) after I found the first bug). I only share it to explain how weird these outages can be, not to provide a solution: nobody should own both an Apple TV 4K and a Roku Ultra, unless they cover this industry.

Around 1:24 p.m. ET (when my streaming was disrupted for an unrelated) I went back to check HBO Max on the Apple TV. And it was working (opens in new tab). So, all in all, this was a mini-crisis, but it hurts HBO Max's reputation as much as anything. I was unsurprised to get negative sentiments about the service in my mentions. My buddy Jason Million said "a year later and the app is still trash," while an online acquaintance (opens in new tab) declared it "Truly the worst app known to the human race."

Does HBO Max need to get better? How will that happen?

While these outages and errors are annoying for us, when do they become a problem for HBO Max? Like all streaming services, HBO Max needs to fight churn — the pattern where subscribers cancel and renew their subscriptions, making the service's revenue less stable. In my case, it's not happening any time soon, as HBO Max has a lot of stuff I'm looking forward to.

Churn could happen for HBO Max if you hit a month or two in a row where you don't see reasons to stay subscribing. Because when that happens, it could combine with the aforementioned negative opinions about the site, and give people another reason to go away. Dergarabedian agreed, saying "it could lead to a tipping point for some to cancel, as a glitch in the system leads to a lightbulb moment about how they're not using a service enough — and this can happen for any streaming service." 

This could arise more often, Dergarabedian said "among those who hit that point where people are trying to figure out where to cut corners, if they're looking for a reason to leave," to meet a budget. 

a glitch in the system leads to a lightbulb moment about how they're not using a service enough

While I'm sure some at HBO Max won't be happy to see me covering my own micro-crisis with trying to watch Station Eleven, this story is not the problem. The real issue is how many other people are going through similar issues. Just look at the "Tweets & replies" section of the HBO Max Help Twitter account, they're out there.

HBO Max's customer support is doing its best. But being told to wait when other apps are working doesn't feel like a great situation (I really hope this isn't a problem on Thursday when I tune in to watch Station Eleven episode 10).

Be sure to check out my guides to the best streaming devices (and best streaming services) for more recommendations. Email me at henry.casey@futurenet.com 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.

Henry T. Casey
Senior Editor

Henry is a senior 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.