Impasse between the two most popular platforms and newest streaming service highlights an evolving carriage battle
HBO Max remains off of the two most-used streaming platforms in the country more than a month after its launch.
The impasse between WarnerMedia and Roku and Amazon Fire TV is indicative of the evolving fight between those who make the content and those who distribute it. Carriage disputes between programmers and distributors are nothing new. TV providers such as Dish and Comcast have routinely engaged in a war of words — and sometimes have dropped channels — with providers like Disney and CBS.
But streaming is an entirely new battlefield, with platforms like Roku and Fire TV becoming the main distributors. And legacy media companies like WarnerMedia and Disney are streaming newcomers with everyone seeking to challenge Netflix.
None of the three companies would comment on the state of talks or say what the current impasse is over. Analysts agree that it probably harms HBO Max as it seeks to find its footing more than Roku and Amazon, which have built their businesses and subscriber bases over the past few years.
But everyone is waiting to see how this new carriage fight plays out. Between the two of them, Roku and Fire TV have roughly 80 million active users — combining to make up 70% of the overall streaming player industry. Both started as streaming device makers but now get the bulk of their revenue by handling streaming subscriptions, for a cut of the revenue. Both offer HBO Now, the HBO-specific streamer, which costs the same as a Max subscription.
“Before HBO Max was around, HBO Now was available on both of those platforms, where you can subscribe through Amazon and Roku, and Amazon and Roku would get a nice, big cut of the subscriber revenue,” explains Parks Associates analyst Steve Nason. “Well, WarnerMedia has said they’re already interested in going more direct to consumers, and if you read in between the lines, they don’t want to give up that revenue.”
WarnerMedia is coalescing its HBO-branded services into one. It will make the first move at the end of July when it sunsets the HBO Go app and rebrands the standalone streamer, HBO Now, into just “HBO.” The idea is to have one service, HBO Max, left standing. WarnerMedia made it easy for most of its existing HBO subscribers to gain seamless access into HBO Max.
But it still leaves HBO Max without the user base of the top two streaming players, at a time when its a late-arrival to the streaming space, following Disney and Apple by six months and coming just before the debut of another new service in NBCUniversal’s Peacock. HBO Max’s launch was also beset by confusion, say analysts.
“It’s caused a lot of excess confusion, and there was already customer confusion among all the HBO platforms,” Omdia analyst Sarah Henschel said. “Not having Max available on Roku and Amazon muddled the update, where people are confused and wondering ‘Is my HBO Go app going to turn into HBO Max? Is there going to be an automatic switchover, or do I have to do that myself?’ This has really muddied the waters that were already muddy.”
Nason added: “In general, WarnerMedia has jumbled the steps on how you typically try to launch something. Usually you have all these ducks in a row before you launch, right?”
HBO Max is likely to have a decent subscriber count when AT&T reports its next earnings later this summer. Some Roku users who pay for their HBO through other services, like Hulu, have been transitioned over to HBO Max, even though they have no access to the content (the Hulu app only allows for HBO-specific content to be viewed).
“In today’s age, consumers just think any streaming service is available anywhere. So when there’s a carriage deal that’s confusing to the average person, it really hurts the streaming service to not be available everywhere — because everything else is available everywhere else, for the most part,” Henschel continued.
The one aspect in HBO Max’s corner is that it’s much easier to switch between streaming platforms, so a Roku customer can become an Apple customer much easier than someone trading in Xfinity for DirecTV.
“All eyes are on who blinks or caves first, HBO Max or FireTV/Roku. Historically, it has been quite challenging for platforms to deny content to their users, meaning MVPDs almost always caved to the consumer pressure to watch the content they desire,” Lightshed analyst Rich Greenfield wrote in a note last week. “This is an important and precedent-setting deal that will establish the power dynamics in a fairly nascent industry. The implications go beyond just HBO. We suspect AT&T is keenly aware and likely willing to be patient, even as it has a new brand.”