HBO Max Launch ‘Still Very Much On’ for May, and Other Takeaways From the Variety Streaming Room

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The current public health crisis facing the world has changed the way people live, work and consume media — and will undoubtedly have a long-lasting impact on industries across the world.

Kicking off the inaugural Variety Streaming Room session with a virtual conversation with executives from NBCUniversal, Spotify, WarnerMedia and PwC, Variety president and chief media analyst Andrew Wallenstein dug into just what that means for the media and entertainment space:

More At-Home Consumers Means Changes in Consumption Habits

“Engagement is way up,” said WarnerMedia Entertainment and Direct-to-Consumer chief strategy officer Sean Kisker. “It’s hard to look at something like that, which is a bit of a tailwind for us, in the broader context, and get excited about it, but when we look at the constraints people have, consumption is way up.”

“Net-net, from a contextual point of view, it’s a good time to be providing solutions to people that are stuck at home and at this point don’t have very many options,” he added. “From a product point of view, it’s created a bit of a tailwind, but obviously there are a whole host of challenges that go along with that.”

The shelter-in-place measures have also shifted the kinds of content people are consuming, as they stay indoors and deal with no small amount of anxiety amid the coronavirus crisis.

“All of us have changed how we work and how we live,” said Julie Clark, Spotify’s global head of advertising revenue innovation. “What we see is definitely consumption patterns and devices are changing. People are accessing more on desktop and TV and smartphones and across gaming consoles.”

“Don’t Stand So Close to Me” by the Police has seen a 135% increase in plays, she said, as people embrace social distancing. Listeners are gravitating toward less high energy and more acoustic music during this time, Clark noted, but whether this will continue after the period of social distancing comes to a close is a question mark.

Industry Responses Run the Gamut

“We’re seeing some businesses that are handling it calm, and with good stabilization, and that are looking towards that light at the end of the tunnel, where things calm and we can return to a new normal,” said Greg Boyer, PwC’s technology, media and telecommunications partner. “We also have some businesses that are severely impacted,” he added, and that in some cases are looking at the CARES Act to see how it can help them.

Some businesses are more prepared than others to handle the aftermath of the current crisis, said Boyer, and the media industry is “a little more suited” than others to adaptation, given the industry’s greater ability to work remotely. But it remains to be seen what the new normal will be post-crisis, and how those businesses approach the market.

At Spotify, “there has been a special attention to the workplace and employees overall,” said Clark, particularly as some employees adapt to balancing homeschooling and care-taking with their usual work responsibilities.

Working Remotely is Possible But No Walk in the Park

“It’s obviously very difficult,” said Josh Feldman, NBCUniversal’s executive vice president and head of marketing and advertising creative. “The crux of everything we do is usually in studios with a number of different people on a shoot at all times, hundreds of people there for a shoot, so having to take that away and do everything from home form that point of view is less than ideal.”

But it’s been notable to see the messaging being developed by marketers not just at NBCUniversal but elsewhere that is sensitive to the times and is “not tone deaf, that is done remotely, that is using imagery that’s already shot – that’s been an amazing thing for me to watch as a viewer.”

HBO Max Still Set to Launch in May 2020

“It’s hard enough to launch a streaming service, never mind in the middle of a pandemic,”  Kisker told Variety, referring to forthcoming streaming service HBO Max. “So starting two years ago, when this thing kicked off, there’s been a pretty constant stream of effort, and the team has run basically at one speed. We really haven’t missed a beat from a remote-working POV.”

But he confirmed that the streaming service, which will cost $14.99 a month, remains “still very much on” schedule.

“I think if we could’ve gone a little bit early we would’ve, but we’re absolutely on schedule for the May launch,” said Kisker. “Based on what I’m seeing and reading, the opportunity for people to be at home will be there for a little while.”