For HBO Max, it’s international markets and ads now, social features later

HBO Max
HBO Max is planning to launch a co-viewing feature on Apple devices with SharePlay first but then it will expand to other platforms. (HBO Max)

HBO Max is going places, but at a measured pace.

The direct-to-consumer app that AT&T’s WarnerMedia launched in May of 2020 is now expanding its global footprint and adding an ad-supported version--but management seems keen on making sure those moves and future plans for social viewing don’t erode HBO’s traditional appeal.

“It will be a journey to get global,” said Sarah Lyons, WarnerMedia executive vice president for direct-to-consumer global product management, in a keynote interview at FierceVideo’s StreamTV Show.

HBO Max will see its first international expansion into Latin America and the Caribbean at the end of the month, with European Union countries following after. Lyons said this required building a software foundation that can scale beyond individual regions.

“We are creating one global tech stack and one global product,” she told interviewer Sara Fischer, Axios media reporter, adding that this will still allow for a service that feels at home in any one region.

“We do have configurability and localization capabilities by market,” Lyons said. “It will feel very local and personal, even though it’s on that global tech stack.”

RELATED: HBO Max with ads caps video at 1080p, turns off downloads

Fischer then asked about the other frontier HBO Max is crossing—adding an ad-supported version that runs $9.99 a month, versus $14.99 for the core product, and which caps streaming resolution at 1080p and doesn’t allow downloads.

“We come from a very strong legacy of storytelling, so we didn’t want the advertising to interrupt the storytelling,” Lyons said. That not only means limits on the number of ads and the time they can eat up—one to two ads per ad pod in a show, with four minutes of advertising an hour—but careful curation of the timing of those spots.

“We’re having individual employees go in and mark each title as to where that ad break should fall,” Lyons said. “We didn’t want to interrupt the story arc.”

She added one upside for advertisers: “There’s much higher brand recall, because the user is not inundated with a bunch of advertising.”

Lyons did not say if WarnerMedia expected to make more money per subscriber off no-ads or with-ads tier. WarnerMedia’s prospective acquirer Discovery has already found that the ad-supported version of Discovery+ is more profitable, Discovery senior vice president Lisa Holme said at the StreamTV Show Wednesday.

HBO Max continues to script out its plans for social features that could include co-viewing capabilities like those Disney+ added last September to allow for synchronized viewing among distanced friends.

Commenting that WarnerMedia’s goals include “creating connections to other users,” Lyons said HBO Max would first let people add their photos to their user profiles.

“That’s the first step for us to create an identity on the platform,” she predicted. “Eventually that will lead us to a point where users can co-view with others.”

HBO Max subscribers watching on Apple devices will get that option first, thanks to the SharePlay feature the computer giant announced at its WWDC event earlier this month. Other platforms will come later, Lyons said: “That’s just one of the ways that we’ve identified that we want to connect users to other users.”

Fischer wrapped up by asking Lyons about what HBO Max found worked best to keep viewers engaged: releasing individual episodes of a show or all at once to allow binge viewing.

Once again, Lyons’ answer suggested HBO is taking care not to stray too far from its roots.

“We’ve found that consumers like to have a chance to catch up with other friends of theirs and talk about the content they’re watching,” she said. “Releasing on a weekly cadence helps foster that community.”