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Five Questions Ahead of HBO Max’s Media Day

The streaming-war spotlight is shifting to AT&T-owned WarnerMedia on Tuesday, Oct. 29, when the media conglomerate will host a media event on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, Calif., to unveil its over-the-top entrant, HBO Max. AT&T chief operating officer and WarnerMedia CEO John Stankey told Variety earlier this year that there is a “tremendous urgency” around the streamer, and has promised to invest in the service, which will have around 10,000 hours of content upon its debut.

HBO Max is set be anchored by prestige cabler HBO and layered with shows and movies from Warner Bros., New Line, CNN, TBS, TNT, Cartoon Network, DC Entertainment and other WarnerMedia-owned brands. Its aggressive courtship of new series (Kaley Cuoco thriller “The Flight Attendant,” Anna Kendrick rom-com “Love Life,” new episodes of “Sesame Street”) and exclusive streaming rights to coveted library content (“Friends,” “The Big Bang Theory,” Studio Ghibli’s films) has meant a slew of announcements in recent weeks.

Here are a few questions that are buzzing ahead of HBO Max’s media day.

When will HBO Max launch? 

So far, it’s been scheduled to debut in the spring of 2020, but the company is expected to announce an exact launch date on Tuesday.

How much will HBO Max cost? How will that position the streaming service in an increasingly saturated market? 

This has no doubt been the top question for industry watchers, Wall Street analysts, and potential customers. The conventional wisdom — and various reports — around pricing is that HBO Max will cost somewhere between $15-$18 a month, given the current cost of standalone HBO to cable and over-the-top subscribers. A source familiar with the company’s thinking has confirmed as much to Variety.

If that stands, that means that HBO Max could be the priciest streamer on the market, amid a field that is crowded and getting even more cramped. Netflix’s most expensive tier, which allows for four concurrent users in HD and Ultra HD, is $15.99 a month. Apple TV Plus, which launches Nov. 1, will go for $4.99 a month and is free for a year to customers who buy a new iPhone, Mac or other Apple hardware. Disney Plus, debuting Nov. 12, is priced at $6.99 a month and has already been on a promotional spree, offering subscribers three years at a discounted price; it also recently partnered with Verizon to offer free Disney Plus for a year to Verizon customers.

And if HBO Max (and its HBO over-the-top counterpart, HBO Now) is the most expensive streamer, that “automatically limits” its total addressable market, according to Barclays equity analyst Kannan Venkateshwar in an Oct. 22 note to clients.

A WarnerMedia OTT offering of $15 or higher risks being “overpriced for anyone other than existing subscribers,” according to MoffettNathanson analyst Craig Moffett, “and if they give HBO Max away for free to wireless subscribers to parry Verizon, they will cannibalize even that (and risk implicitly positioning HBO Max as being ‘worth’ about the same as Disney Plus at the same time).”

“With Disney and Apple both widely available for free, HBO is likely to have a hard time convincing current non-subscribers that it is now worth taking the plunge,” he added.

What will an ad-supported HBO Max look like, and how much will that cost?

WarnerMedia has plans to bring to the market an ad-supported video-on-demand version of HBO Max in 2021, per Reuters. Live programming is also in the works for the service. Look for more details around live and AVOD at media day.

Such a strategy would allow the company a “more comprehensible go-to-market strategy,” per Venkateshwar, who sees advantages to an AVOD HBO Max — namely, smaller investment needs and a plan that might be “even better than Disney’s in some ways because of its breadth, especially in the US.”

It won’t be the only new massive AVOD on the market in 2021. Comcast-owned NBCUniversal is launching its own ad-supported direct-to-consumer platform, Peacock, that year. (Peacock will also reportedly have a subscription offering.)

What other bundles or promotional offers will WarnerMedia offer for HBO Max? 

Disney is planning to bundle its upcoming Disney Plus streamer with Hulu and ESPN Plus for $12.99 a month. Apple TV Plus is essentially being bundled, for free for a year, with new Apple gadgets. T-Mobile includes a subscription to Netflix with its unlimited family plan.

At launch, HBO Max will be offered for free to the 10 million or so AT&T customers who are also HBO subscribers, Stankey recently told Reuters, but also “hinted” at potentially bundling HBO Max with certain AT&T wireless subscriptions. The aggressive promotional pushes from competitors may spur further offers from WarnerMedia as it vies for subscribers.

What will happen to HBO Go and HBO Now?

HBO Go is the TV-everywhere feature available to paid cable subscribers of linear HBO. HBO Now is the standalone streaming version of HBO that non-cable subscribers can purchase. There’s often confusion between the two brands. The addition of HBO Max means that there will be no fewer than four HBO-branded services in the world.

“For the most part, [HBO, HBO Go and HBO Now] are the same from a content perspective with the difference mainly being in how they are distributed,” wrote Barclays’ Venkateshwar. “It is not clear why that needs three different brands.”

“We believe the company should have created a lower-end HBO brand (say HBO Basic) with library content from Warner, HBO, DC Comics/CW and Turner in order to grow TAM and funnel/upgrade subscribers to HBO/HBO Now,” he additionally wrote. “This would also allow the company to have one brand for originals (HBO Now), thereby making the service less dependent on singular successes such as ‘Game of Thrones.'”

Watch for commentary on Tuesday about HBO Now and whether there will be any consolidation of services, given the company’s focus on HBO Max.