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HBO Max hits 4.1 million signups in its first month

HBO Max needs to get more people to sign up for HBO Max who already qualify for an upgrade to the newer, bigger streaming app through their pay TV provider, parent company AT&T says.

HBO Max's Tony Goncalves

Tony Goncalves, who oversaw the development of HBO Max, presented plans for service in October.

WarnerMedia

HBO Max had 4.1 million subscribers signed up as of late June, one month after its May 27 launch in the US, parent company AT&T said Thursday. AT&T CEO John Stankey said that out of the 4.1 million, about 3 million accounts subscribe directly to $15-a-month HBO Max. The remaining 1.1 million or so activated a Max account by upgrading their existing HBO service paid for through a regular TV provider -- the vast majority of them being AT&T's own pay TV customers. 

They're the first official figures about HBO Max's traction since its launch about two months ago. While outside analysts had estimated the initial response to HBO Max was tame compared to the gangbusters demand for rival Disney Plus in November, Max's rollout strategy -- which updated its preexisting HBO Now app on mobile devices, automatically turning it into HBO Max -- clouded some signals about demand for the new service.

By comparison, Disney Plus reported more than 10 million signups in little more than 24 hours. Disney Plus, which at $7 a month is less than half the cost of HBO Max, grew to 54.5 million subscribers by about six months after launch. HBO Max's goal is to reach 50 million subscribers in the US by 2025. 

AT&T and HBO Max, Stankey said, need to do a better job of getting people who subscribe to regular HBO channels to upgrade their accounts so they're using the company's newer and bigger streaming app. 

"We still have work to do to educate and motivate [our] exclusively linear subscriber base, and we'll continue to work with our wholesale partners to drive these activation rates," he said Thursday, speaking to analysts on a conference call to discuss second-quarter results.  

But people who are using HBO Max appear to like it: The average number of hours spent watching HBO Max per week was 70% higher than on HBO Now, the company's previous standalone streaming app, according to Stankey. 

To put Max's 4.1 million signups in context, they're part of HBO's 36.3 million total US subscribers at the end of June. (That total number is up 4.9% from the end of last year, when it had 34.6 million HBO customers in the US.) That grand total includes HBO Max customers; HBO Now customers, who could easily switch over to HBO Max for the same price at launch; and regular pay TV HBO subscribers through partnerships with distributors like cable and satellite companies, many of which allowed upgrades to HBO Max.  

HBO Max launched in late May as another splashy new service in the so-called streaming wars, a seven-month period when media and technology giants rolled out their big-budget takes on streaming TV. Just like Disney PlusApple TV Plus and NBCUniversal's Peacock, HBO Max hopes its particular mix of shows, movies and originals will hook you on its vision for TV's future. But these corporate rivalries also affect how many services you must use and pay for to watch your favorite shows and movies online. 

People join HBO Max either by signing up as a new account or by transitioning an HBO Now or HBO Go membership over to the newer, bigger service. 

The differences between HBO's three apps can be confusing. HBO Now is the channel's preexisting standalone streaming app, and it is essentially being replaced by HBO Max, which has extra movies, shows and originals, plus more tech features. HBO Go is the network's streaming app that lets regular HBO pay TV subscribers watch over the internet, and WarnerMedia secured deals with many pay TV providers to offer HBO Max to these regular HBO customers at no added cost. 

To simplify its app offerings somewhat, HBO announced in June that it would be getting rid of HBO Go at the end of July and that it would be renaming any lingering HBO Now apps as simply "HBO." 

But the end of HBO Go could leave some customers in a tight spot: those who stream HBO Go on Roku or Amazon Fire TV. Neither Roku nor Fire devices support HBO Max, leaving a vacuum when HBO Go disappears. 

On Thursday, Stankey dressed down Amazon on AT&T's conference call about its second-quarter earnings results, 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," 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."

This standoff pits device makers Roku and Amazon against not only HBO Max but also, more recently, Peacock. Both HBO Max and Peacock launched without apps on Roku or Fire TV devices, even though their products are the most pervasive ways to stream on televisions in the US. Together, the two companies' streaming devices and smart TVs make up 70% of all the streaming devices installed in the US last year, and they reach roughly 80 million active users between them globally. 

Unfortunately, that puts people like you in the middle of a power battle: Until the companies reconcile, you can't watch the all biggest services on the most popular streaming devices. 

Streaming has grown more popular than ever during the coronavirus pandemic, amplifying the long trend of people watching more of their video online. But now the most powerful TV app distributors and deep-pocketed media companies are fighting each other 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. 

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