It should not surprise you that HBO Max is about to be in a world of hurt. It is larger and more successful than its current sister streamer, Discovery Plus. But it’s also a part of Warner Bros. Discovery, a company now helmed by David Zaslav, and Zaslav is a man who loves him some reality TV and is okay gutting channels, canceling cool shows, and axing movies if it means the accounting books will look a little prettier. Now, just days after his company canceled Batgirl for a tax write-off, rumors are flying that HBO Max is going to be gutted, too.
By most recent estimates, HBO Max, despite a terrifically bad app, had over 76.8 million global subscribers. Discovery Plus, the service launched by Zaslav pre-merger, had about 22 million. It’s firmly the third-largest streaming service by subscribers, behind Netflix and Disney Plus. HBO Max, again despite just a terrible app that needs a total overhaul, felt like proof that you didn’t need huge Marvel- and Star War-grade franchises or Netflix’s luxury of being an early mover in the streaming space to build a fairly robust streaming business. Jason Kilar, then-CEO of WarnerMedia, instead took a lot of things the company already had (the stellar HBO and its many successful properties; a huge catalog of WB films and TV shows; and a big fancy bag of successful intellectual property like DC Comics and Harry Potter) and formed HBO Max.
To better differentiate HBO Max from Disney Plus and Netflix, Kilar also risked upsetting Hollywood by providing some particularly important incentives for customers stuck at home due to the pandemic. HBO Max had day and date releases for theatrical films.
Zaslav was supposedly not a fan of Kilar’s strategy. Never mind his company was merging with Warner Bros. and coming in with a much less popular streaming service full of the stuff you watch when doing laundry or you’re stuck at your parents’ place for the weekend. Never mind the broader strategy of streamers is to produce “appointment TV” to compete with YouTube, TikTok, and Twitch. Zaslav is a reality TV guy. He built Discovery up into a reality TV empire and has long preferred the fast, cheap, and easy reality show to that more critically acclaimed but pricey scripted TV.