Kids Content Strategy Will Be Key to Success of WBD’s Max

Building blocks with the letters M A X
Illustration: VIP+

Warner Bros. Discovery’s newly christened streaming service “Max” launches Tuesday with a new mandate: to establish itself as a general entertainment platform for the whole family — children included. 

As JB Perrette, WBD president and CEO of global streaming and games, explained during the new service’s grand unveiling in April, the HBO brand targeted adults with edgy fare. “It’s not exactly where parents would most eagerly drop off their kids,” he said. “And yet Warner Bros. Discovery has some of the best-known kids characters, animation and brands in the industry. Not surprisingly, the category has not met its true potential on HBO Max.”

He’s not wrong. Max is home to iconic WBD-owned properties like “Looney Tunes”; DC superheroes and Hanna-Barbera characters, including Scooby-Doo; the company’s flagship kids cable channel Cartoon Network; and “Sesame Street,” which moved its first-run programming to HBO Max in 2020, as well as several spinoffs of the classic preschool program.

And yet the service’s share of the kids streaming audience has trailed far behind Netflix and Disney+, as well as less ostensibly family-friendly services like Hulu and Amazon Prime Video. A survey by media agency KidsKnowBest revealed last year that only 18% of parents with children 16 and under said their kids watched content on HBO Max.

That share was even lower among kids 2-11; HBO Max claimed no higher than 16% of any segment of that audience in KidsKnowBest’s survey.

Meanwhile, no kids show on HBO Max has ever cracked Nielsen’s streaming top 10 (either on the overall chart or the “acquired” series chart), while “Bluey” on Disney+ and “CoComelon” on Netflix appear on the chart week after week — not even “Sesame Street,” with its hundreds of available episodes (even after around 200 were removed from HBO Max during the Great WBD Content Purge last year).

This all stands in stark contrast to the popularity of WBD’s Cartoon Network among children: In the same KidsKnowBest survey, 48% of parents said their kids watched the channel, including nearly 60% of parents of kids aged 8-11. Other kid-targeted linear networks besides Cartoon have been in freefall for years as streaming has stolen market share, according to a VIP+ ratings analysis earlier this year.

In short, as Perrette noted, kids’ content has indeed not lived up to its potential on HBO Max, and it’s frankly among the service’s biggest failures that it hasn’t been able to appreciably rival Disney+ as a go-to viewing destination for families. So what’s the problem?

The name was part of it, obviously. As we’ve long argued, “HBO Max” was never the best branding for a platform that hoped to serve a much wider audience than the typical HBO demographic.

But the problem runs deeper than that. As an L.A. Times article pointed out last month, HBO Max’s user interface didn’t put kids content front and center, with the service’s layout usually doing more to hide family-friendly programming than promote it.

Perrette told the Times the redesigned Max interface will “make it much more pronounced — much more explicit and overt — that there’s great kids content here.”

But if WBD execs are honest with themselves, the real root here is more straightforward, so much so that pointing it out feels almost churlish: To win more of the kids streaming audience, Max will have to win more of the streaming audience, period.

While HBO Max’s subscriber numbers have been respectable — WBD does not break out subs for the service, but analyst estimates have put its domestic total around 40 million, not too far behind Disney+ — the platform has struggled to secure a substantial share of viewing time.

In Nielsen’s monthly “The Gauge,” HBO Max regularly accounted for less than 1.5% of total U.S. TV viewing time for the given month, behind Disney+ (while no viewing-time powerhouse itself, usually closer to 2%) and not far ahead of NBCUniversal’s Peacock and FAST service Tubi.

As a would-be premium SVOD destination, that was a significant issue for HBO Max — and no doubt a major reason WBD has reinvented the service as an all-things-to-all-people general entertainment platform. Many aspects of this strategy are questionable, to be sure, but pushing its familiar kid-friendly properties is a key opportunity for the rebranded Max to capitalize on its potential.