With seven days to go before HBO Max launches, WarnerMedia is racing to hammer out a deal with Roku to get the super-size streamer on Roku’s popular over-the-top TV platform. But sorry, Amazon Fire TV owners: It appears that HBO Max will not be there for you on May 27.
WarnerMedia and Roku are currently in negotiations on a pact for HBO Max, a Roku spokesperson confirmed to Variety.
The main sticking points on a HBO Max/Roku agreement likely revolve around how big a cut of subscription fees Roku will take, as well as WarnerMedia’s apparent insistence that HBO Max be made available as an app (without the option of being a channel add-on in the Roku Channel). The talks also would cover details of how Roku markets HBO Max on the platform. After Roku’s installed base nearly doubled the last two years — from 20.8 million in Q1 2018 to 38.9 million as of March 2020 — the company has aggressively sought more favorable terms in renewing distribution deals with content providers.
In a statement, the Roku rep said, “As the No. 1 streaming platform in the U.S. with over 40 million active accounts that rely upon Roku to access their favorite programs and to discover new content, we are focused on entering into win-win distribution agreements with all new OTT services as part of their launch strategies. While we don’t typically comment on specific deal terms or negotiations, the fact is that in this instance while we believe that HBO Max would benefit greatly from distribution on Roku at launch, we do not currently have an agreement in place.”
A WarnerMedia spokesperson told Variety there was “nothing new to report” vis-a-vis a deal for HBO Max on Roku.
Note that Roku has engaged in hardball tactics in the recent past: This February, Roku and Fox Corp. inked a last-minute deal to keep Fox’s channels on the OTT platform in time for Super Bowl LIV.
WarnerMedia’s HBO Max talks with Amazon, meanwhile, could be at an impasse. Under existing agreements, HBO Now has been available on Fire TV platforms for nearly five years (and HBO subscriptions are available as an option through Amazon Prime Video Channels).
At an investment conference on May 13, AT&T incoming CEO John Stankey said, “I’m pleased to say we’re going to be in virtually all app stores” with HBO Max at launch — with “maybe one exception. It looks like we may not be in the Amazon Fire app store when all of this is said and done.”
Beyond rev-share terms for HBO Max, holdouts like Roku and Amazon — which together had 69% market share of U.S. OTT households in early 2019, Parks Associates estimated — are objecting to WarnerMedia’s push to have current HBO customers switch to HBO Max apps. That would mean current HBO customers who get the service through the Roku Channel or Prime Video Channels will be forced to move to the HBO Max app to get the expanded bucket of content — and thus leave the Roku and Amazon integrated video environments.
Note, for example, that Hulu customers who subscribe to HBO Max will still be able to view all HBO programming within the Hulu app as they have done before. However, to access the extra HBO Max content (including Max Originals) they will need to use the HBO Max app, by signing in using their Hulu login credentials.
Wall Street research firm LightShed Partners discussed the dynamics of the OTT partnerships in a blog post last week. Given WarnerMedia’s current strategy to deliver HBO Max as an app experience (a la Disney Plus and Netflix), the analysts wrote, “subscribers will ultimately gravitate away from [third-party] platforms even when watching legacy HBO content. HBO Max wants to drive time spent and engagement on its own platform, not third-party platforms.”
So far, WarnerMedia has completed several key deals for HBO Max, including with Disney’s Hulu, Apple, Charter Communications’s Spectrum, Google and YouTube TV. HBO Max subscriptions also are also available directly, as well as from AT&T (WarnerMedia’s parent), which is bundling HBO Max free for high-end service tiers.
[Update: WarnerMedia today announced seven new distribution deals for HBO Max, covering Microsoft’s Xbox One, Sony’s PlayStation 4, Samsung TVs, Altice USA, Cox Communications, Verizon and the National Cable Television Cooperative (NCTC).]
Besides Roku and Amazon, big distributors still missing from HBO Max’s launch matrix include Comcast, and Dish Network/Sling TV (although HBO has been dark on Dish since November 2018 so that seems like a nonstarter).
Amid the scramble to secure distributors, WarnerMedia earlier this month introduced a new HBO Max promotional pricing offer for direct-billed subscribers: The promo rate of $11.99 per month for one year (20% less than the regular $14.99/month) is available up until the May 27 launch date for new and returning HBO Now subs. Even at the discounted rate, WarnerMedia may net slightly more per-subscriber revenue than if someone pays for the service through partners — which each keep a percentage of the subscription fee.
HBO Max promises a whopping 10,000 hours of content to stream right away. That will include all the programming on HBO; a slate of new originals; third-party licensed content like full seasons of “Friends,” “The Big Bang Theory,” “South Park,” “Sesame Street,” and “Pretty Little Liars”; all of the films from Japan’s famed Studio Ghibli; and movies from Warner Bros., New Line and DC like “Joker,” “Suicide Squad,” “Wonder Woman,” “The Matrix,” “Casablanca” and “The Wizard of Oz.”
In addition, HBO Max will carry content from other WarnerMedia brands including CNN, TNT, TBS, truTV, Turner Classic Movies, Cartoon Network, Adult Swim, Crunchyroll, Rooster Teeth and Looney Tunes.