One Thing HBO Max Can Learn From Each Recent Major SVOD Launch

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CHEYNE GATELEY/VARIETY INTELLIGENCE PLATFORM

It’ll be a hard, but not insurmountable, challenge for HBO Max to make noise in today’s crowded streaming market that counts over 270 options.

That’s been evidenced by each of the new prominent SVOD launches since November of last year that, along with the forthcoming HBO Max, clearly mark the beginning of a new era of streaming where Netflix is less of a gatekeeper of eyeballs seeking digital video-on-demand.  

Luckily for HBO Max which is out May 27 the recent launches of Disney+, Apple TV+, Quibi, and Peacock, help provide clues as to some key do’s and don’ts, thanks to the early market reactions to each.

Here is one thing HBO Max can take from each of the major new video streaming launches to boost its chances of success in the market:

Apple TV+: Speak, or others will speak for you. The first to kick off the new wave of streamers on November 1 of last year, Apple has remained tight-lipped about pretty much all important metrics (like subscriber count) pertaining to its new SVOD product. This secrecy is on-brand for the Silicon Valley company accustomed to ducking product leaks, but it’s led to industry observers taking the reins of the Apple TV+ narrative that Apple itself could be more carefully guiding by selectively cherry-picking and releasing engagement stats that make itself look better, similar to what Netflix does now with its quarterly show “viewership” numbers. For example, sources close to Apple told Variety that Apple TV+ drew millions of users who were spending on average more than an hour on the platform within the first week of its launch. While vague in nature, disclosing something similar to this about one of its new shows could help Apple TV+ somewhat quiet the critics who are already counting it out. HBO Max could take a note from this, and remember to disclose flattering engagement stats about its service if its originals get mixed reviews like Apple TV+’s shows did initially. This could help in silencing critics and more importantly help ease AT&T investor concerns about the pricey HBO Max gamble.

Disney+: Be prepared to monetize on zeitgeisty moments. Disney launched its SVOD shortly after Apple’s, but unlike Apple TV+, Disney+ had one of its originals seemingly take hold of the internet with Baby Yoda from “The Mandalorian.” Driving a cultural moment is a positive for any content provider, but it did have a downside for Disney+ in that the company wasn’t able to fully cash in on the Baby Yoda hype: Disney chose not to make merchandise featuring Baby Yoda ahead of the launch of “The Mandalorian” to avoid spoilers, but in prizing this secrecy, the company might have lost out on millions in revenue that could have came from Baby Yoda merch, according to Amazon seller software provider Jungle Scout. HBO Max can’t know for certain which, if any, of its originals will punch through the zeitgeist. But at least preparing some merchandise for some of its originals based on already popular IP (like “Adventure Time: Distant Lands”) could better prepare it to cash in on watercooler moments that its originals are responsible for, in a way that Disney+ couldn’t.

Quibi: TV is the most important screen for SVOD. What some in the media biz saw as an obvious SVOD requirement, Quibi dodged early on as an opportunity to distinctly brand itself: Allowing playback on a TV screen. But Quibi early on betrayed a sense that going mobile-only was a misstep, as it quickly announced it would support casting of its content to TV screens shortly after it launched in late April. The fact that most consumers are no longer traveling daily to work in the coronavirus era certainly hurt the appeal of a mobile-only Quibi that could have been viewed while consumers were, say, waiting for the subway or bus. But the reality seems clear now that as long as consumers are confined to their homes, they’re going to prefer to at least have the option to watch their entertainment on the biggest screen possible. This was already hinted at in a June 2019 Vorhaus-Manatt study, which found that 53% of SVOD programming viewed in a week was watched on an internet-connected TV. This isn’t really an issue for HBO Max since it’s not a mobile-only service, but at the very least tells WarnerMedia that it probably doesn’t make sense to optimize HBO Max shows for mobile-viewing (this could mean avoiding experiments with making vertical video HBO Max programming, for example.).

Peacock: Ad-supported offering helps prepare for the worst of times. While Peacock might have had some of the worst luck among any major new U.S. video streamer of recent times (two of its major content value propositions in its full originals launch slate and Olympics programming have been delayed until 2021), the fact that it has a free tier means it will still be able to find its way into households that wouldn’t have otherwise paid to view a less-than-full-strength version of it. WarnerMedia has already said that it plans to roll out an ad-supported version of HBO Max in 2021, although it may be wise for the company to consider moving up the ad-supported tier launch date in order to protect itself in a similar way that a free ad-supported tier is likely to protect Peacock. Having the WarnerMedia SVOD available at a lower, or even free, price supported with ads could help convince consumers to still try out HBO Max in the event that the production of certain big HBO Max original shows or movies being delayed.