Deeper Dive—HBO Max had a tough first week

HBO Max does have many positives going for it. It’s a well-designed app with an easy-to-navigate user interface and a deep library of beloved series and films. (HBO Max)

HBO Max got through its first week but the early days of the new streaming service have been marked by continued distribution woes and an open internet controversy.

Things could be much worse. HBO Max could be Quibi. The service does have many positives going for it. It’s a well-designed app with an easy-to-navigate user interface and a deep library of beloved series and films – that includes the Studio Ghibli library which, if you haven’t seen those films yet, I highly recommend checking them out.

HBO Max is still light on high-profile original content but that’s a product of the pandemic-related production shutdowns and the service will eventually catch up in that department.

However, the app itself and the content within it were largely overshadowed during the past week by issues that continue to plague the fledgling streamer’s reputation with consumers.

Still no Roku or Amazon

HBO Max pulled off a zero hour distribution agreement with Comcast that filled a big hole in its traditional pay TV distribution story. But as of now, after a crucial week of first impressions, the service does not have an app on Roku or Amazon. Those platforms combined have more than 80 million active users, which means HBO Max still has a massive blind spot where more consumers could be watching, engaging with and subscribing to the app.

Tony Goncalves, head of HBO Max, sounded optimistic about reaching agreements with Amazon and Roku when he spoke recently with The Verge.

“There are certain business models that exist and we each have our own. I think we’re just starting from a very different place. We have 30 plus million existing subscribers that have already gone in their pocket and voted to subscribe to a product and we’re making that product better. We think the value proposition is there. We just want to be treated fairly,” said Goncalves. “I’m hopeful that we’ll get there with the consumer in mind. We just didn’t get there on day one.”

Amazon said it has nearly five million HBO Now subscribers on its Prime Video Channels platform and accused AT&T of “choosing to deny these loyal HBO customers access to the expanded catalog.”

“We believe that if you’re paying for HBO, you’re entitled to the new programming through the method you’re already using. That’s just good customer service and that’s a priority for us," said an Amazon spokesperson.

While the Amazon-HBO Max relationship still seems salty, Roku’s recent statement on the impasse sounded more optimistic.

“Unfortunately, we haven't reached agreement yet with HBO Max. While not on our platform today, we look forward to helping HBO Max in the future successfully scale their streaming business,” the company told CNET on May 27.

The sooner HBO Max can set deals with Roku and Amazon the better as it will calm the frustrations of existing subscribers HBO Now subscribers who can’t get HBO Max, existing HBO Max subscribers who can’t watch on all their devices and would-be HBO Max subscribers who can’t even get in the front door.

A new net neutrality controversy

AT&T’s latest brush with potential open internet abuses quickly escalated this week. After The Verge reported that HBO Max would be exempt from impacting wireless subscribers’ data plans through AT&T’s Sponsored Data program, federal legislators got involved. Senators Edward Markey (D-Mass.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) wrote a letter to outgoing AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson to express concerns about potential harm to consumers and stifling of competition. They also aimed scrutiny at HBO Max paying its parent company for preferred network access.

“This practice of allowing one arm of your company to ‘pay’ another arm of your company for preferential treatment attempts to mask its true impact,” the Senators wrote.

Now AT&T has until June 25 to explain its behavior to the lawmakers. It’s unclear if much will come of this situation but it’s still a bad look to have the U.S. Senate crack down on your new streaming service just a week after launch.