Sam And Max Are Open For Business

It’s been a bad week for HBO in some ways.  Logan Roy is no longer with us and, soon, neither will the HBO name that had been affixed to the streaming service his old show SUCCESSION airs on.  As J. Clara Chan of THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER reported this morning:

The wait is over.

Warner Bros. Discovery on Wednesday unveiled Max, its refreshed streaming service combining programming from both the original HBO Max streaming service and Discovery+. Launching May 23, Max will cost $15.99 a month ($149.99/year) for the ad-free version and $9.99 per month ($99.99/year) for the ad-supported tier. A third “ultimate” ad-free version with 4K UHD resolution, 100 offline downloads and Dolby Atmos sound will be available for $19.99 a month ($199.99/year).

To be sure, the buck, and the expectation for more of them, stops with WBD CEO David Zaslav, who we reverently reference as “Yosemite Zas”, given his penchant to shoot down everything that may stand in his way toward delivering Wall Street the kinds of savings that might offset some of the $3B deficit he inherited from his AT&T-backed predesecessors.  But it was his deputy JB Perrette, WBD president of streaming and games, that took center stage to explain to a Hollywood-centric press assemblage the logic behind the effective jettisoning of a half-century old premium brand.  Per Chan, Perrette’s remarks included the following rationales:

Part of Zaslav’s pitch to Hollywood was the creation of a streaming service that could compete with Netflix and Disney+ by combining the best of HBO’s high-brow scripted fare with Discovery’s more low-brow but profitable lifestyle and reality programming.

By removing HBO from Max’s branding, WBD is also hoping to appeal to a wider audience that may have previously turned away from the streaming service due to HBO’s high-brow reputation and higher price point. Perrette said removing HBO from the branding was a part of “preserving and protecting the most iconic trailblazing brand in entertainment.”

And as Dade Hayes of DEADLINE (along with Jill Goldsmith) added, anyone crying for that conclusion to rebrand is now free to blame research for it:

After signaling for months that two streaming products would combine into one, WBD backtracked earlier this year and said it would continue to provide Discovery+ as a stand-alone streamer. That decision came after research indicated resistance among some diehard fans of the unscripted fare on Discovery+ to have to spend considerably more for an upgraded subscription.

In the AT&T era, emphasizing the “HBO” in “HBO Max” was always a key part of the corporate strategy for getting into the streaming game, particularly because of the premium network’s existing paid base of tens of millions of subscribers in the U.S. At the time launch plans were made for HBO Max, Game of Thrones was concluding its record-smashing final season and the prevailing thought was that no shinier jewel existed in the corporate crown. No serious consideration was ever given to other names, and executives who oversaw the effort to christen the service said research tilted heavily in the direction of HBO. The strong affiliation with legacy HBO network, however, proved an early stumbling block in terms of subscriber growth as the effort to communicate to linear viewers how to “activate” a streaming account proved unwieldly.

While WBD CEO David Zaslav is as enamored of HBO as the AT&T regime overall, his management team concluded that the “HBO” in the name positioned the general entertainment service as slightly too rarified to match rivals like Disney+ or Netflix. The combined service is home not only to the coastal fixation Succession but also decidedly Middle American unscripted series like Naked and Afraid and 90 Day Fiancé.

Which is remarkably in line with what yours truly posted on LinkedIn earlier this week in advance of today’s news, from a preview article  from yesterday’s New York Times shared by Rick Howe.  Rick’s preface was:

I’m sorry (no I’m not) : dropping the most prestiguous name in television (HBO) from the re-named Television Service makes no sense to me. 

My retort:

Understand this: Zaslav made hundreds of millions building networks that didn’t have a shred of scripted content and immediately fired the one exec who somehow made an off network purchase of consequence. When he took over WBD he actually called the 90 Day Fiancé universe as valuable as DC. He is committed to one thing and one thing only—profits. In a way destroying HBO is his form of proving there’s a new sheriff in town to dubious investors and board members. He likely heard voices as smart and as nuanced as yours but laughed it off. And he will blame anyone else but himself when Max performs like a Min.

And I stand by it.

Lest Rick or others be overwraught, Zaslav did not completely ignore news about new content for HBO in this morning’s press conference, including the annoucnement of a new limited series, THE SYMPATHIZER, produced by Robert Downey, Junior, another limited series with belle of the network ball Kate Winslet, THE REGIME, and a fourth installment of the critically acclaimed but modestly rated TRUE DETECTIVE, this one co-branded as NIGHT COUNTRY and featuring Jodie Foster.  Plenty of opportunities for Emmys and other awards.  But in the same breaths, a new iteration of HARRY POTTER (with a 10-year commitment), prequel series based on GREMLINS and GAME OF THRONES and a spin-off of THE BIG BANG THEORY were alao annoyunced for Max.  As were a “social experiment” unscripted series, SURVIVE THE RAFT, a new competition series for HGTV, THE BARBIE DREAM HOUSE CHALLENGE, and a BATMAN spinoff about THE PENGUIN that may not be quite as appealing to certain elected officials than, say, BATGIRL, but likely tested better and broader.

Most of those concepts would have never aired on the original HBO, and certainly not on the version of it that elitist content producers and observers’ minds perceive the HBO brand to be.  What is often forgotten is that some of HBO’s highest ratings were achieved by live and unscripted content.  REAL SEX.  CATHOUSE.  TAXICAB CONFESSIONS.  Boxing.  The venerable Shiela Nevins was much of a part of the legacy–and profit–of HBO as any executive or producer who contributed to the Emmy-winning shows.  And more people watch THE BIG BANG THEORY, even in their umpteenth and ubiquitiously available reruns on HBO Max and TBS in a given week than who watch SUCCESSION.

As Perrette’s concluding remarks as reported by Chen summarized:

“HBO is not TV. HBO is HBO. It needs to stay that way, which is why we will privilege it in the product experience and also not push it to the breaking point by forcing it to take on the full breadth of this new content proposition,” Perrette said.

And yes, TV is not always HBO. Most attempts for HBO content to broaden their appeal with off-network sales have not gone well.  Reruns of SOPRANOS and SEX IN THE CITY have been generally poorly rated.  Few of the Kilar-era originals for HBO Max were among the metric leaders on the platform, the reason that Zaslav has sought to sell them to other ones who aggregate spots across multiple shows for AVOD opportunities.  It cuts both ways.  And, frankly, I’ve seen way too much qualitative and quantitative data from empirical sources, not biased creatives’ minds, to support the moves announced this morning.

When I worked for FOX Kids, there was a little-remembered Canadian import cartoon called SAM AND MAX, which ran adjacent to the likes of more honored shows like the animated BATMAN.  It was not my taste.  But kids I researched thought the characters were adorable and the humor evoked many a chuckle.  And that was especially true when we showed the show in what some call the flyover states.  The same ones that love a lot of the Discovery, TLC and HGTV shows that now make up a large portion of the MAX portfolio.  And based upon how little it cost the network to air, it stayed on the air a lot longer than many creatives thought it should.

Time will tell if this combination of Sam and MAX will work for WBD.  It will be up to viewers and subscribers to determine that.  Not whining creatives.

Until next time…




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