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HBO Max kills HBO Go, a shot at Roku and Fire TV with you in the crossfire

HBO Go is gone, with HBO Max meant to replace it. But HBO Max is in a standoff with Roku and Amazon Fire TV, and you're caught in the middle. Here's what happened (and what to do).

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HBO Max is one of two remaining apps to stream the premium cable network's programming. 

Angela Lang/CNET

HBO, the jewel of AT&T's $85 billion takeover of WarnerMedia, overhauled its various apps Saturday. What was once three -- HBO Go, HBO Now and the newer, big-budget HBO Max -- is now winnowed down to just two: Max remains, and Now became a renamed app simply called HBO. For a change that AT&T claims would simplify matters, streaming HBO is more complicated than ever, especially if you're a Roku or Amazon Fire TV user. And if your pay-TV company doesn't have an upgrade deal for Max, you're really stuck. 

You just got caught in the middle of a power battle over the future of TV. 

HBO Max launched at the end of May as the premium cable network's newer, bigger streaming app. With twice the shows and movies at the same $15-a-month price, it's meant to essentially replace the company's previous apps, HBO Go and HBO Now. HBO Go has been the network's streaming app for regular pay-TV HBO customers to watch over the internet. And HBO Now is the channel's stand-alone streaming option that lets people stream HBO without any pay-TV bundles. 

But now HBO Go is gone -- and that puts some Roku and Amazon Fire TV users in a bind. Because HBO Max failed to secure distribution deals with both of those device makers, Max isn't available on those devices, which are the most popular TV streaming devices in the country. So anybody who currently streams HBO Go on a Roku or Fire TV is left in the lurch. 

"Essentially it is a new take on the age-old debate over whether content or distribution is king," Lightshed analyst Rich Greenfield wrote in a note after after HBO Max revealed its plan to shut down Go and rename Now. "While the headline ... is to remove consumer confusion around HBO branding and which app to use, the shift also increases the pressure on Amazon and Roku to reach a deal for HBO Max."

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HBO Max launched at the end of May.

Angela Lang/CNET

Streaming has grown more popular than ever during the coronavirus pandemic, amplifying the longtime trend of people watching more of their video online. For all the attention paid to the so-called streaming wars, the fiercest battle emerging isn't between the various streaming services, Instead, it's between the most powerful TV app distributors and deep-pocketed media companies. Both those sides are drawing their battle lines for control of the data and money generated by your streaming activity, as they try to entrench positions of power for the next era of TV. 

But in the meantime, you're stuck taking shrapnel in the crossfire. It means you can't watch all the top streaming services on all the top devices.

Power plays

Roku and Amazon Fire TV products are the most pervasive ways to stream on televisions in the US. Together, the two companies' streaming devices and smart TVs made up 70% of all the streaming devices installed in the US last year, and they reach roughly 80 million active users between them. 

But rather than serving as neutral platforms for apps, lately Roku and Amazon both have been digging in their heels in talks with new streaming services. And media companies are pushing back on distribution terms with these device makers, needing their new services to be as profitable as possible after investing billions to create them.

The HBO Max hubbub wasn't the first time this tension between streaming services and device makers spilled out into public view. Earlier this year, a similar carriage dispute between Roku and Fox threatened to kick Fox's apps off Roku boxes, right as those apps were set to stream the biggest TV event of the year: the Super Bowl. One day before kickoff, Fox and Roku reached a deal to keep the apps working in time for the game. 

But HBO Max wasn't the last instance of this kind of conflict, either. After HBO Max rolled out without Roku and Amazon in May, NBCUniversal's Peacock from Comcast was a replay of the same standoff. Peacock launched nationwide July 15, but like Max before it, Peacock lacked Roku and Fire TV support because it couldn't reach deals with those companies.  

The heart of the conflict is, of course, money and control. Todd Spangler at Variety has summarized the finer details of their fight well. 

Unfortunately for customers like you, nobody appears to be budging. 

Roku vs Amazon Fire TV

Amazon's Fire TV Stick and Roku's Streaming Stick are two of the companies' cheapest options.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Even as HBO Go's expiration date approached, HBO Max said late Thursday that it had nothing new to share about the negotiations. "We continue to work hard to reach agreements with the few outstanding distribution partners left to bring all of HBO Max to customers on platforms," a spokeswoman said. Previously, HBO Max said it has apps for Roku and Fire TV ready to go; the only thing keeping you from using them are these deals. 

Roku didn't comment on the status of talks, and Amazon didn't respond to a message seeking comment. 

Last week, though, AT&T's chief executive dressed down Amazon for keeping HBO Max away from customers, while staying silent on Roku.

"We've tried repeatedly to make HBO Max available to all customers using Amazon Fire devices, including those customers that have purchased HBO via Amazon," AT&T CEO John Stankey said, referring to people who pay for HBO using Amazon Channels, which lets you subscribe to multiple video services through your Amazon account. "Unfortunately, Amazon has taken an approach of treating HBO Max and its customers differently [from] how they've chosen to treat other services and their customers."

But Wednesday, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said he believed eventually the company would come to an agreement with HBO Max, as he was questioned on Capitol Hill about whether Amazon abuses its market power. 

Asked by a member of Congress whether it was a conflict of interest for Amazon to keep services like Max off Fire TV to extract more favorable terms, Bezos said, "There could be scenarios, if we're just talking in the abstract, where it could be inappropriate, and scenarios where it would be very normal business and very appropriate."

Simpler... but more complicated

So starting Saturday, the options for streaming HBO come down to two apps. HBO Max continues to be AT&T's marquee streaming service. But Go has disappeared, and Now has been renamed simply HBO. That creates some headaches for people who relied on Go on Roku and Fire TV or Firestick devices, and it also leaves behind some people who pay for regular HBO from a TV provider that doesn't have an upgrade deal for HBO Max. 

So what do you do if you relied on HBO Go to stream on a Roku or Fire TV?

If you're in this group, the good news is you can unlock the renamed HBO app, but you need to jump through some hoops first. AT&T pseudo-collapsed HBO Go and HBO Now together into the rebranded HBO app. While this app won't have any of the extra originals, shows or movies that you get with HBO Max, you'll still be able to stream regular HBO programming with it on Roku and Fire TV. 

For legacy HBO Now customers, you shouldn't notice much difference. You should be able to log in to the HBO app with the same credentials that you previously used for HBO Now. 

But for legacy HBO Go customers, you need to upgrade your HBO account for HBO Max. Once you register an email address and password with HBO Max, you can use your HBO Max credentials to sign in to the newly rebranded HBO app on both Roku and Amazon Fire TV.  

In addition, Roku noted that people who pay for HBO through Comcast, Charter or AT&T TV can stream HBO on the Comcast Xfinity Stream, Spectrum TV and AT&T TV apps too. Amazon didn't respond to messages seeking comment. 

But the complications don't end there. Unfortunately, not every regular HBO customer qualifies for that upgrade to Max. Most pay-TV providers in the US have deals with HBO Max that allow their regular HBO customers to unlock Max at no added cost -- but not every pay-TV provider does. (CNET has an article explaining all the ways you could qualify for an upgrade to get those HBO Max credentials.)

Beyond amping up AT&T's leverage in talks with Roku and Amazon, this change to HBO's app offerings helps the company with something else it has struggled with: Relatively few people who qualify for free Max are bothering to sign up for the newer service. 

Out of more than 30 million HBO customers in the US, many of whom qualify for Max at no added cost, only about 1.1 million have bothered to register with the new, bigger service. Several factors have complicated the demand for HBO Max so far, but certainly Max's absence from the two most popular streaming-TV devices has contributed to HBO customers' disinterest in it. Now even people who stream with Roku and Amazon Fire TV devices have a new motivation to register with HBO Max, even if they can't actually watch Max on their TVs. 

Simple, right? 

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