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HBO Max Is on a Buying Spree, but NBCUniversal’s Streaming Slate a Mystery

HBO Max and NBCUniversal Streaming Services
Illustration: Variety

HBO Max has been on a buying spree, with the nascent streamer snatching up a number of high-profile original projects as it visits the WarnerMedia vault to extract existing properties. While the final product is still under wraps until spring, the underlying ethos of the subscription video-on-demand service is starting to take shape. Its budding rival service from NBCUniversal, on the other hand, is still something of a mystery.

“We have a very broad service, from preschool programming to classic films — we are an alternative to other services,” HBO Max chief content officer Kevin Reilly tells Variety. “HBO is more male-skewing, so [HBO Max] will be filling out with more female and younger viewers. That is the SVOD audience.”

This backs up what sources have been telling Variety: that WarnerMedia has been shopping for content with women viewers in mind.

Some of the early series orders at HBO Max include the romantic comedy anthology series “Love Life,” with the first season set to star Anna Kendrick, who will also executive produce alongside Paul Feig; the drama “Tokyo Vice”, starring Ansel Elgort; an animated “Gremlins” series; a new “Gossip Girl” series; and “Dune: The Sisterhood,” a series with Denis Villeneuve attached to direct the pilot.

HBO Max also recently announced a string of pilot orders that includes a “Practical Magic” prequel, while sources say that several other well-known pieces of IP are in development as potential series as well. The service will be the exclusive home of legacy Warner Bros. content like “Friends” and “Pretty Little Liars” upon launch.

A “Gossip Girl” spinoff and all 10 seasons of Ross and Rachel might not seem like a natural companion to “Chernobyl” and “Watchmen,” but the core HBO brand will remain plenty distinct from its surrounding village, even as it shares part of a name with HBO Max.

“This product is differentiated as an experience and in its content,” says Reilly.

Meanwhile, development around NBC-Universal’s streaming service has been much more opaque. Almost no series commitments have been made at this point, prior to its 2021 rollout.

Among those in the mix: Single-cam comedy “AP Bio,” revived for a third season after NBC canceled it back in May. The company also announced in August that two projects — a pilot based on the book “One of Us Is Lying” and a “Queer as Folk” reboot — are set up at the new streamer. The former was previously in development at E!, while the latter was being readied at Bravo. The service will also be the exclusive streaming home of “The Office” when the show’s deal with Netflix expires in 2021.

While there are more projects in development yet to be announced, multiple agency sources who spoke with Variety say that NBCU has lagged behind other streamers in terms of outlining a programming strategy to agency partners. One source says that NBCU is beginning to ramp up its development slate, but it currently has nowhere near the appetite of HBO Max.

“HBO is more male-skewing, so [HBO Max] will be filling out with more female and younger viewers. That is the SVOD audience.”
Kevin Reilly, HBO Max chief content officer

But perhaps patience is in order: The NBCU programming that has been announced so far is not indicative of any larger strategy, according to a separate source familiar with the matter. The company plans to announce its initial slate for the NBCU streaming platform in the fall, though an exact date has not yet been specified.

Snippets of NBCU’s overarching content philosophy can be gleaned from on high. NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke said on Comcast’s July 25 earnings call that the service will be “very different” from Netflix. He does expect most of the NBCU streamer’s content to be leveraged from existing sources — noting that acquired programming makes up the bulk of Netflix’s content by volume — though NBCU is investing
in originals.

“We have a number of originals that are actually tied to libraries that we currently own,” said Burke. “But I would expect the vast majority of the consumption in the beginning would be acquired.”

At this stage in the game, HBO Max and NBCUniversal — and streamers Disney Plus and Apple — will have to contend with Netflix’s powerful footprint of 151 million subscribers worldwide, including about 60 million in the U.S.

Calling Netflix a “one-and-done system,” TBS and TNT general manager Brett Weitz told Variety at the Television Critics Assn. press tour in July that he believes the streamer is beginning to show “not cracks, but slight adjustments in the consumption behavior.” The comments came just a few days after Netflix’s second-quarter earnings report, when the company lost U.S.
subscribers for the first time in eight years.

Meanwhile, Weitz highlighted WarnerMedia’s “sophisticated pipe infrastructure” that allows for robust linear, theatrical and SVOD experiences, musing that HBO Max could be a “catchall for all of those infrastructures.”

Where HBO Max has an advantage over Netflix is in its ability to tap into the large network of media IP under the WarnerMedia umbrella, wielding its traditional channels as brand tentacles. Weitz said that a program that first streams on HBO Max could have a linear window on TNT, TBS or TruTV and vice versa.

And in what will likely become an increasingly common move, streamers have begun taking on projects that have long been in development at linear channels owned by the same media conglomerate.

NBCU’s streamer has pulled in multiple projects from the company’s cable channels, including “One of Us Is Lying” and “Queer as Folk.” HBO Max series “The Flight Attendant,” with “Big Bang Theory” alum Kaley Cuoco set to star and executive produce, as well as the drama “Crime
Farm,” with Nicole Kidman attached to executive produce, were in development at Warner Bros. before landing at the streaming platform.

The moves are not altogether surprising, given that linear television ratings have been on a slow, steady decline for years, while digital viewing has increased exponentially.

Questions remain, however, about how much original scripted programming will air on these conglomerates’ linear channels versus their streaming services in the years to come.

“Originals are the No. 1 reason you sign up for an SVOD service, so I think they’re critically important,” says media analyst Rich Greenfield. “I think catalog gives you reason to stick around and fill more time and increase engagement, but I don’t think anyone signed up for Netflix to watch ‘Friends’ or ‘Grey’s Anatomy.’”