It’s only appropriate that this site, named based on a parody of HBO’s most famous show, should give it’s take on HBO Max. HBO Max, WarnerMedia’s answer to Netflix and Disney+, arrived a few short weeks ago to rapturous acclaim, but also a few complaints. For $14.99 a month, the app is on the high-end of streaming services, so it has to be worth it. I immediately signed up on launch day, and my thoughts were aplenty – from how it compares to the aforementioned competition, what it exceeds at, and where it can be better.
The marketing of HBO Max has been a work in progress from the start (they’ve switched logos so many times that I don’t even know what the official logo is). The work in progress has extended to the app itself, which we all found out on launch day. To be fair, the app does allow some shortcuts for viewers to find content – there’s an “HBO Hub” which you can find in the main menu. The Hub contains links to several specific brand names such as Turner Classic Movies, Studio Ghibli, and the DC Universe.
However, when it’s time to actually search for a specific title, there are some minor issues. While everything is easily searchable by Title, Actor, or Director, on your TV the search option will appear horizontally. That means you have to scroll left and right like you’re running back and forth to the opposite ends of a hallway. Why? Why?? It’s 2020, HBO! Somehow, Netflix figured out years ago that you just need a square so that all the letters and numbers are relatively close together. This is like if your job required you to enter a PIN everytime you used the coffee maker – it’s not a big deal, but it’s completely unnecessary.
However, navigation is relatively easy, it’s just that HBO Max could do a better job of hyping their own content. The homepage of the app features a scroll of their IP (Friends, Love Life, Not-Too-Late Show with Elmo) but hardly anything feels special. When Netflix has something for you to watch, they will fill the entire screen just to showcase it’s importance. Not to mention, the layout of the content in Netflix feels like a gigantic buffet with endless options. HBO Max could advertise their content in a similar way – imagine huge graphics for Studio Ghibli or the DC Universe. But baby steps, I’m sure there is already plans in the work to make the app’s titles feel special, but for now it’s a bit lackluster.
Thus far, the most criticized aspect of the service has been the rollout itself and it’s availability on various devices. As of this writing, you can not download HBO Max on Roku or Fire TV (and the instances in which you can will feature great security risk on your part). This is due to various contract and rights disputes, but the main issue is that most people weren’t aware of the problem until launch day. WarnerMedia did a poor job of communicating the issue, obviously to protect the stock price, maintain subscriber interest, etc.
The app is available on PS4 and Xbox One. I downloaded it on my console and so far have had zero connection issues. But some may not have a gaming console, and would prefer to have it available on a smart TV. Yes, you can connect your laptop to your TV via an HDMI cord. But that introduces unnecessary hassle that isn’t exactly user friendly, especially when you’re competing with every other streaming giant that are already user friendly. In other words, can we get it sorted out WarnerMedia? Consumers don’t care about contracts and disputes with various companies like Amazon, etc. There’s no excuse for the app not being available and free to download on all smart TVs.
I’ve been pretty harsh on the service this far, but here is when they’re going to start winning. To be fair, since the service is so new, they have time to establish what the direction of their content, branded as Max Originals, will be. For now, the new content that is available includes the comedy TV show Love Life, starring Anna Kendrick, Craftopia, and Legendary. These shows run through a myriad of classications, from scripted to reality TV, and in the case of Craftopia, a DIY-based children’s show starring Youtuber Lauren Riihimaki. If the knock on HBO Max is that the catalogue of Max Originals is bare, at least it’s wide ranging. The service also hosts On the Record, the timely documentary centered around sexual assault allegations directed at music moguls Russell Simmons and LA Reid.
In addition to the aforementioned shows, there’s also Looney Tunes Cartoons, which features brand new episodes of the classic characters. And also, somehow, Elmo received a talk show in the Not-Too-Late Show with Elmo. It’s a cute program, but only worthwhile if you’re into an even more sanitized version of Jimmy Fallon’s show. But there’s a clear pattern here, and that’s HBO Max’s focus on a young demographic. This is as good a time as any to bring up Disney+, and how that service’s singular focus on family friendly content is juxtaposed by HBO Max. While Disney+ hosts Pixar and the Disney Renaissance films, HBO Max counters with Studio Ghibli. Disney is elevated by Star Wars and Marvel Studios, while the Max offers DC as well as the Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones franchises. HBO Max also features anime titles, and a plethora of Adult Swim shows such as Rick and Morty, Home Movies, Samurai Jack, and the excellent Primal. The two services act as counter-programming to each other.
HBO Max represents an improved version of Disney’s strategy – they’re able to offer mature content alongside family content, as evidenced by their diverse lineup. Disney+ lags behind both HBO Max and Netflix when it comes to offering a user experience that appeals to everyone and every demographic. Further shifting the odds in HBO Max’s favor, even when compared to Netflix, is the service’s enormous library. Warner Bros. is one of, if not the most, the greatest and decorated movie studios in history. To bolster a library that includes DC films, classics such as Casablanca and 2001: A Space Odyssey, Hayao Miyazaki’s films, various horror hits such as Nightmare on Elm Street and The Conjuring, landmarks such as The Matrix, etc etc is a valuable advantage. Warner Bros. has existed for nearly a century, thus it’s library is matched by only a couple of entities. One nitpick, however, is the app does not currently have trailers for it’s film library, which can be a bit annoying if you’re conflicted about what movie to watch on a late night. But similar to Disney+, it’s the draw of the library that will inspire users to either re-visit or discover these old classics, and it’s not like you’ll run out of content to dive into.
Speaking of which, we haven’t even covered the brand the that service gets it’s namesake – HBO. To put it bluntly, HBO is the greatest television channel of all time. It’s library features some of the greatest TV shows ever, such as The Sopranos, The Wire, and Deadwood. To be able to mine that entire catalogue is worth the price of admission alone. HBO’s new shows are just as exciting, featuring hits such as Sucession, Euphoria, and Insecure (which recently aired it’s 4th season) all of which are some of the best shows of the past few years. However, it’s not all aces; the library does have the 2004 film Catwoman, which features the iconic line “you are a catwoman!”, so major L there.
While this content is great, what can be better is the presentation. None of the new content, from Love Life to Looney Tunes to Legendary, has had great roll-outs. The reason Netflix is so much better at spotlighting a title is because they’ve mastered the art of curating to your niche needs, while establishing mainstream titles as an option. In a sense, the Netflix app is the greatest salesman of all time. Want proof? How many Netflix shows have you seen where it took you 4 episodes to realize you actually didn’t like the show at all, and could be doing something more productive (looking at you Santa Clarita Diet)? That’s the power of Netflix at work, and it’s something HBO Max will need to learn from in the future.
Then there’s Amazon Prime, the often forgotten streaming service. But it’s useless to make a comparison here because of the different goals that Amazon has. It’s a part-time streaming service, part-time video rental shop, and part-time app gateway. All in the name of the real business – getting you to buy utensils, pots/pans, and clothes because you’re too lazy to drive 15 minutes to the store. So, measuring it against HBO Max is an apple to oranges comparison that’s not worth making.
HBO Max isn’t perfect – but it could be. In my opinion, it’s had the best launch of any major streaming service, but that doesn’t mean that it’s the undisputed king of the streaming services – yet. Obviously, a lot will ride on the new content the service produces, and how the presentation of the service evolves. But the library it possesses matches up with anyone, and that’s what is most important. It could be more user friendly, which includes making the app available in more places, but if you have it you most likely love it. It’s an endless content supply that can provide for every demographic and taste. A year or two from now, we may consider HBO Max, not Netflix, the brand that is synonymous with television.