How HBO Max and Discovery+ Use Human Curators (and Algorithms) to Promote Content

The merchandising on both platforms for Halloween outlines the distinct differences in subscriber behaviors

One of the biggest questions consumers have when it comes to the variety of streaming services is: How do I find something to watch? For Halloween, HBO Max and Discovery+ bypassed the usual use of algorithms and leaned into a human-driven curation of specific content — not algorithms! — to drive subscribers to movies and shows they’d be most likely to enjoy. And while the subscriber bases for both streaming services exhibit distinctly different behaviors, the strategy that’s driving programming for both right now will come in handy when they’re combined into a single streaming service in 2023.

“A lot of thought goes into it,” Lisa Holme, SVP of Content Strategy, Merchandising and Podcasts at Warner Bros. Discovery told TheWrap about merchandising Halloween content on HBO Max and Discovery+, which in 2021 saw the launch of three interactive doors on HBO Max that chose a movie for a consumer based on which door they picked: “Not Scary at All,” “Scary” and “Very Scary.”

This year saw the expansion of this kind of curated choice for subscribers with an interactive series of tarot cards, each revealing a different film from a horror sub-genre. Select “The Fool” and you got a title related to horror comedies; choose “The Executioner” and you got a slasher; pick “The Magician” and you’d find a recommendation related to fantasy and magic.

But Holme said the titles that show up behind the doors and cards are not driven by solely algorithm or previous viewership. There’s a human touch that’s essential. “They’re not targeted to a user watch history, but they’re curated more in a human and data way as opposed to an algorithm kind of way,” she said. “So it’s not a random selection.”

Similarly, much though went into how Halloween was merchandised on Discovery+, which saw the launch of channels specific to programs like “Dead Files” and “Ghost Adventures” and even channels for certain genres, like “paranormal,” based on viewers’ behaviors and preferences.

Holme, who oversees the merchandising of both HBO Max and Discovery+, acknowledges that the two platforms have quite different subscriber bases with different viewing habits, which informed how Halloween was celebrated on each.

“The Discovery+ base tends to be kind of genre-forward, so they know they want food or home or paranormal or dating and relationships, and if you could lean into that genre, then we have a whole host of content for you where you may be choosing more of the network brands to whom you have affinity, like HGTV, or a genre like true crime that you really love, and the content sort of follows,” she explained.

On the other hand, she said HBO Max subscribers are more driven by specific titles. “They often show up knowing this is the show I’m gonna watch, and have more of a single title driven-type browse experience,” she said. “Somebody shows up knowing I’m gonna watch ‘House of the Dragon’ tonight.”

Tarot cards on HBO Max

However, HBO Max execs have found that its movie viewers sometimes behave like genre-focused Discovery+ viewers by taking advantage of the service’s robust library of titles. “We see a lot of behavior at nights and on the weekends if someone’s showing up saying, ‘I know I want to watch a movie. I don’t have a specific movie in mind, I just trust that HBO Max has a designated movie offering so I’ll just browse around and see how I’m going to spend my night.’”

So how does the HBO Max team go about increasing discoverability when their consumer generally knows why they’re coming to the platform? The site has “a number of different experiments” running at any given time to test this particular aspect of HBO Max, Holme said, but execs also try to ensure a consumer doesn’t become frustrated by not finding something to watch.

“We really try to strike that balance of, for somebody that comes in knowing what they want to watch, we want to make it easy and not frustrating for them to find that thing,” Holme said. “So whether that’s the ‘House of the Dragon’ episode, and it’s the first thing you see on a Sunday night when you open the app or your “continue watching” tray is very high up in the experience so you can pick up where you left off on the next episode. … As you finish watching that show, we want to make sure that you know everything else that’s curated on the platform and it won’t take you too long to find your next great show.”

During holidays, the human-curated merchandising aspect of both streaming services comes further into play, in Holme’s words, allowing the streamer “to surprise and delight the consumer in a way that I think no algorithm really can.” Although Holme acknowledged that algorithms and personalization do come into play a lot of the year, particularly on the Discovery+ side.

The human touch for seasonal content on HBO Max and Discovery+ is an approach that WBD execs are hoping to explore even more once they combine the two streamers next year. “The wheels are turning about how exciting this may be in the future when we bring these catalogs together,” she said, with discussions underway about how to serve the more passive viewing habits of Discovery+ subscribers while determining how certain shows might be good fits for a shuffle or themed curation.

“There are some types of content that really lend themselves to that more passive viewing, from a ‘Friends’ or ‘Big Bang Theory’ to ‘House Hunters: International,’ so I think we will try to feed those kinds of experiences where the content really makes sense for it,” Holme said. “Like ‘South Park,’ you may want to watch all of the episodes that are tied to a specific theme, and so we’ll try to make that really easy for you to find.”

But before the new combined streaming service launches, Holme says there’s more holiday-oriented curation on the way on HBO Max and Discovery+.

“We will be taking quite a creative approach on both platforms to merchandise holidays,” she added. “We’ve got some original holiday movies on both platforms that we’ll be featuring as well as just the entire breadth and variety of the platforms.”