HBO Max gets that, for many HBO fans, the next best thing to zero ads is as few of them as possible. That's why HBO Max With Ads -- the cheaper, ad-supported tier of the streaming service that launched Wednesday -- is aiming to serve fewer of them than anyone else: less than four minutes of ads per hour.
"HBO has previously been a walled-off garden for the last 50 years," said Julian Franco, vice president of product management at HBO Max, referring to the network's freedom from advertising since its origin. "Stories are better received if you limit the disruptions during them."
Priced at $10 a month, HBO Max With Ads represents a $5 discount from HBO Max's ad-free subscription, one of the priciest among its competitors. But more than that, it'll bring advertising into the world of HBO for the first time. HBO has always leaned into the service's liberation from advertising and the creative freedom that allows. There was a reason syndicating Sex and the City to basic cable, where it ran with ads, meant retrofitting episodes into something more like Sex (But No Nudity and Only Light Cursing) in the City.
But to introduce advertising on HBO Max, Franco and others created a playbook for what should be out of bounds based on what customers were likely to love or hate.
Starting Wednesday, Max will start to learn if they drew those lines in the right places.
Placing these bets for HBO Max has higher stakes now, as competition for viewers' streaming interest has ratcheted higher than ever. Ad-free HBO Max launched a year ago as yet another service in the so-called streaming wars, a year-and-a-half period when media and technology giants rolled out their own offerings to take on Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and others. Just like Disney Plus, Apple TV Plus, Paramount Plus and NBCUniversal's Peacock, HBO Max hopes its particular mix of shows, movies and originals will hook people on its vision for TV's future.
That flood of competition also complicates things for HBO Max when it comes to figuring out which viewers it actually wants -- and how much they'll be willing to pay for what they get.
Even with a $10 tier, HBO Max is one of the priciest you'll encounter. HBO Max's $15-a-month ad-free pricing goes up against Disney Plus at $8 and Netflix's cheapest plan at $9. Even among the services with discounted advertising-supported tiers, Hulu and Paramount Plus both charge only $6.
HBO Max With Ads keeps some things out of bounds for subscribers too. Anyone on the cheaper tier is locked out of big-screen Warner Bros. movies when HBO Max starts streaming them the same day they hit theaters, including flicks like In the Heights, Space Jam: A New Legacy, The Suicide Squad, Dune and The Matrix 4. And as it works on a way to deliver content with ads, HBO Max doesn't allow downloads on mobile devices. For now, anyone who wants to watch on the go must have a functioning connection.
But Franco is hoping that one of the things people will like most about HBO Max With Ads is how little they notice the ads at all.
Ads for Max, at a minimum
One of the lines HBO Max won't cross: no ads interrupting HBO original programming. Programs that are licensed to HBO Max, like Friends and the Big Bang Theory, will have ad breaks. Even HBO Max originals, like The Flight Attendant and the Friends Reunion Special, will have them. But the programs that originated on HBO's regular network won't be carved up with any bumpers or spots during playback.
Franco, who spearheaded development of the HBO Max With Ads product, said these proscriptions mean the amount of video advertising you see -- or ad load -- may vary depending on what you watch. But based on the viewing trends of HBO Max's current, ad-free customers, HBO Max projects that its ad load for an ad-supported subscriber will be just under four minutes.
If true, that would seem to make good on HBO Max's vow to have the lightest ad load in the streaming industry, a commitment it made last month when it unveiled the timing and pricing of the new tier.
NBCUniversal's Peacock, for example, currently has one of the lowest ad loads, at five minutes per hour hour. Tubi, a free ad-supported service owned by Fox, says its ad load ranges from four minutes to six minutes an hour. HBO Max With Ads' most direct competitors, Hulu and Paramount Plus, don't publicly disclose their ad loads, but typical ad loads at free services like The Roku Channel and Pluto TV can range from eight to 12 minutes.
Beyond that, Franco said HBO Max wants to have a light touch even for the titles on HBO Max that were created with ad breaks built in.
"One of our philosophies and core principles has been that just because an ad break may exist doesn't mean that we should force ourselves to recognize it and play back advertising," he said. In an episode of Friends on HBO Max, for example, you might see only two ad breaks per episode instead of the traditional three.
HBO Max will also lean into unconventional ad formats down the line, like "pause ads" that come up only after you've paused playback for at least 10 seconds or "branded discovery" that puts a sponsor's banner at the top of a page of recommendations, like a collection of most-binged shows.
Formats like these aren't necessarily major innovations. Hulu, for example, implemented its own spin on pause ads two years ago. But they're important for a service like HBO Max With Ads if it wants to maintain the high-end perception of HBO.
Keeping Max premium is important to Franco too, but not as much as bringing it within reach of more viewers.
"Frankly," he said, "just to make it more accessible to more people -- and making it more affordable to more people -- is what I'm most excited about."