Why HBO Became the Brand to Anchor WarnerMedia’s High-Stakes Streaming Play

Kevin Reilly TBS-TNT Kevin Reilly's Executive
David Buchan/Variety/REX/Shutter

The HBO brand has for decades been the gold standard in premium television — so it made sense for AT&T to build its high-stakes streaming play around HBO after acquiring corporate parent TimeWarner.

HBO “stood for a lot of things that were positive,” says Kevin Reilly, chief content officer for Warner Media and Direct to Consumer, who was involved in the earliest conversations about how to brand what would become HBO Max.

But positioning the new streaming service, which launches May 27, as an extension of HBO has also created some challenges from the consumer perspective — not least that multiple other iterations of HBO are already in the marketplace.

Original-recipe HBO, delivered as a subscription cable channel, is still the primary way that most viewers engage with the service. As of last year, HBO boasted 43 million cable subscribers in the United States. Those customers are able to stream HBO programming through HBO Go. Eight million U.S. customers subscribe to HBO through standalone direct-to-consumer streaming service HBO Now as well as through third parties such as Hulu and Amazon, which offer it as an add-on.

Subscribers to HBO Now and those subscribing to HBO through YouTube TV, Charter’s Spectrum, Apple TV, Google, Hulu and AT&T’s own TV services will have access to Max at launch. But not all deals are done. Existing HBO subscribers through distributors such as Comcast’s Xfinity and Amazon will not be grandfathered in to the new product.

WarnerMedia execs have sought to downplay the idea that consumers might be confused by the ever-increasing number of HBOs in the marketplace, insisting that people will easily begin to understand what the product is when it comes to market.

But at the AT&T investor day last year where he previewed the product, then-AT&T president (and recently christened AT&T CEO) John Stankey joked in response to an analyst question about potential confusion that converting existing subscribers to Max would be “an IQ test” for customers.