Speaking of AT&T and its acquisition of Time Warner, and therefore also HBO, the whole deal has always disappointed me.
On the one hand, HBO Max has done well for AT&T. It got 4.1 million new signups in its first month of existence, which is nothing to sneeze at. Even more impressive is that it’s accomplished this while demanding $15 a month, making it one of the most expensive streaming services available. By all accounts, it’s a big success for AT&T. No doubt it was helped along by the COVID pandemic; when we’re all stuck at home, it helps to have excellent and fresh programming to consume.
The decision to premiere feature films that otherwise would have been theater exclusives on the service was another boon for them. Sure, it upset many people involved with both the entertainment and theater industries, but their objections were never going to sway business daddy AT&T. Until HBO Max starts losing money, nothing will deter them from their present course.
On the other hand, HBO as we knew it before the acquisition is gone and will likely never return. The blame for that lies entirely on the shoulders of AT&T’s CEO, John Stankey.1 In an incredibly detailed and well-researched CNBC article, Alex Sherman details the rocky process of this acquisition. The article boils down to this quote from a former HBO executive:
If HBO stood for anything, it was making a product for the customer, not the advertiser. It’s not as though John is unpleasant. He doesn’t throw stuff. He just knows much less about television than he thinks and won’t be debated.
Is Time Warner and HBO’s acquisitions by AT&T good for business, or at least the business of AT&T? Undoubtedly. This opens up a bevy of new revenue opportunities, which will, in turn, make the bottom line of the telecommunication giant look great. However, I don’t believe this will improve the quality of the content that’ll appear on HBO Max in the coming years. HBO was doing just fine without AT&T’s heavy, leading hand before the acquisition. You can expect the familiar HBO quality to get watered down as AT&T spreads the focus to areas that have never mattered to past HBO. In an interview with Jillian Morgan at Realscreen, executive vice-president of original non-fiction and kids programming, Jennifer O’Connell, says:
There is a ton of weight on unscripted… We’re doing dating, we’re doing social experiments, we have competition shows, we have really big competition shows… That is an area that, for example, our colleagues at HBO, they are not necessarily in that space so deeply, so it’s very rich, very fertile ground for us to dig into.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with unscripted programming. It’s enormously popular for a reason—people flock to those shows in droves. However, it was never HBO’s area of interest. AT&T doesn’t care about that history. It cares about making money, and there’s a lot of money to be made in unscripted, non-HBO style content.
If you’re looking for a future replacement for HBO, the service that’s making the strongest play is Apple TV+. Netflix has become flooded with content that’s aimed at appealing to the broadest number of viewers. A service like Hulu has an advertising-supported pricing tier, meaning their content is ultimately beholden to other entities. Disney+ has shown that they’re interested in telling unique stories, but they’re doing it off the springboard of their massive library of previously made content.
The only service out there that’s charting a unique course is Apple TV+. They’re walking the HBO path of debuting movies and shows that will, over time, grow to be a body of impressive work that’s all their own. They’re going to stumble along the way—even HBO was never perfect—but they’ll catch themselves and improve on their mistakes. They’ve invested too much money already to just ditch all their hard work. I’m looking forward to seeing where they’ll go.
It’s just a damn shame about HBO.
UPDATE: From a 9to5Mac article published on April 13, 2021: Apple TV+ features the highest-rated content of any streaming service, study says. Seems like Apple TV+ is already beginning to deliver on my estimation of it being the new HBO.