HBO Max, live Wednesday in the US after months of hype, marks the arrival of yet another major-league streaming service. It has a huge catalog of blockbuster movies and TV hits to watch -- superheroes included. It's trying to entice you with big-budget, exclusive originals. And one of those shows wants to tug at your heartstrings with an adorkable puppet.
HBO Max, from AT&T's WarnerMedia, is one of the final entrants in the streaming wars, a seven-month window when media giants and tech titans are releasing a raft of new streaming services to take on Netflix. These competitive battles -- pitting rookies like HBO Max, Disney Plus and NBCUniversal's Peacock against heavyweights like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video -- have spurred huge corporations to pour billions of dollars into the hope of shaping the future of television.
The rivalries also affect you: They'll influence how many services you'll need to pay for, and how much you'll have to fork over to stream your favorite shows and movies, especially as more of that programming gets locked up by different players.
HBO Max arrived Wednesday after Disney Plus slayed its entrance into the arena. Armed with a catalog of box-office juggernaut movies and a surprise phenomenon in Baby Yoda from its big-budget original The Mandalorian, Disney Plus set a gold standard. One media analyst called it "one of the greatest product launches of all time." Even Netflix's CEO tipped his hat, calling the launch of Disney Plus "stunning."
"Over 20 years of watching different businesses incumbents, like Blockbuster and Walmart and all these companies, I have never seen such a good execution of the incumbent learning the new way and mastering it," Reed Hastings said last month. "My hat's off to them."
That's a tough act for HBO Max to follow. But big differences between HBO Max and Disney Plus mean they have starkly different challenges and strengths at launch.
Adding to the difficulty level is the service launching in the middle of a pandemic, which has already upended norms around the globe.
A built-in customer base
In little more than one day after its Nov. 12 rollout, Disney Plus registered more than 10 million sign-ups. Within six months, its number of subscribers had ballooned to more than 50 million.
But unlike Disney Plus, HBO Max isn't starting at zero. Max enters the game with some big stats already on its side: For roughly 10 million current HBO subscribers who are billed by AT&T, WarnerMedia or HBO directly, HBO Max is available to them at no added cost. And HBO Max has deals for millions more HBO subscribers to get the same no-cost upgrade through deals with pay-TV providers and other platforms.
And any of them streaming with HBO Now, the company's existing standalone service, will see their HBO Now app automatically switch to the HBO Max app through a software update Wednesday morning.
With those factors combined, HBO Max could meet or beat Disney Plus' milestone signing up 10 million accounts out of the gate. That immediate influx of Max members won't change the net number of HBO customers, but they'll represent millions of people trying the service and, potentially, starting to stoke word-of-mouth interest.
For context, Netflix -- the market leader -- has more than 182 million subscribers worldwide.
The ballooning number of services raises the specter of subscription fatigue. HBO Max's launch follows that of Apple TV Plus, Disney Plus, a limited version of NBC's Peacock and Quibi. The vast majority of people subscribe to just one to three paid streaming services, according to a Nielsen study earlier this year. Each new service creates another competitor for one of those coveted spots. Still, as streaming-service options expand, people aren't showing signs of pulling back: 93% say they'll either increase or keep their existing streaming subscriptions.
That study, however, didn't account for how people would feel after the US workforce shed nearly 40 million jobs over the past month.
Puppeteering a hit
Neither Disney nor HBO Max could tout a Netflix-like level of original programming at launch. HBO Max will have six original titles on day one, including a comedy series called Love Life starring Anna Kendrick and a play on the late-night talk show format with Sesame Street's 3-year-old red monster Elmo. The first episode of the Not Too Late Show with Elmo is already free to watch on YouTube to drum up interest.
Disney Plus didn't have many more originals at launch than HBO Max will -- it had about eight. But chief among them was The Mandalorian, the highly anticipated Star Wars spinoff series. The Mandalorian ticked a lot of boxes -- it has a mega-budget production, with costs per episode in the same realm as Game of Thrones. It was also the first time the Star Wars universe was brought to a live-action series.
But its secret weapon was truly a secret. The Child, the pint-sized puppet known to the world as Baby Yoda, was kept so tightly under wraps, Disney decided to forego goldmine toy and plushy sales and shielded the character from all marketing materials and a merchandise production pipeline. All to preserve Baby Yoda's big reveal.
It worked. Baby Yoda became a pop-culture phenom, and The Mandalorian became one of the most buzzed-about shows.
It's always possible for HBO Max to unleash an original-programming surprise that captivates attention at launch. But based on early reviews of its originals, released in advance to critics, the HBO Max launch slate as we know it today doesn't appear to have a cultural bombshell waiting to go off.
The free first episode of Elmo's The Not-Too-Late Show had 153,000 views since it was posted on YouTube five days ago. The Mandalorian's trailer alone, however, had 7.5 million views on YouTube in the first five days after it posted. The trailer for HBO Max's Love Life on YouTube has reached about half that number -- but it took more than a month.
Of course, Disney Plus also benefited from an eye-popping marketing machine. Virtually every arm of Disney's vast apparatus was plugging Disney Plus in the weeks leading up to launch, going so far as putting promo materials in Disney resort hotel rooms.
HBO and WarnerMedia aren't slouches when it comes to marketing, either. And HBO Max certainly has the benefit of popular franchises with built-in fandoms: DC, Game of Thrones and Friends, to name a few.
But HBO Max is coming when many of the typical promotional levers -- fancy red carpet premieres, huge billboards, buzzy fan activations -- have been disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic and global lockdowns intended to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory disease the virus causes.
With people across the country stuck entertaining themselves at home without live sports, new blockbuster movies or any kind of theater or concert mass gathering to entertain them, coronavirus lockdown has put streaming services in even greater demand.
But these lockdowns have not only complicated how HBO Max rallies interest in the service leading up to launch, they've also disrupted the pipeline of programming. The day that people searched Google for HBO Max the most was Feb. 22. Why? That's when HBO Max announced a Friends reunion special.
That special is on indefinite hold now. It can't be shot when social distancing is still the rule.
Disney Plus, on the other hand, was Google's top trending search term last year. And though the search interest in Disney Plus peaked (by a lot) on its launch day Nov. 12, the days prior to Disney Plus' launch still returned much higher search interest than HBO Max has been generating leading up to the rollout.
The graph above shows US search interest for HBO Max in blue and Disney Plus in red, dating four weeks before Disney Plus' launch up through Sunday, which was the latest date that Google Trends provided this kind of historical search data as of publication time.
The huge red spike? That's Disney Plus' launch day, and it sets the high-water mark that the rest of the search interest is measured by here. That nearly flat blue line stuck at the bottom? That's interest in HBO Max by comparison. It's not the prettiest picture. To compare, at three days before launch, HBO Max's search interest is about half that of Disney Plus' at the same stage before its own launch, relative to that massive spike.
Still, the most crucial data about HBO Max's search popularity may come today, launch day. But before those details come in, you can get a sense of the relative interest in HBO Max versus that of Disney Plus is by comparing them to Netflix. As the world's dominant streaming service for years, Netflix search interest is a popularity yardstick for competitors.
One day before launch, search interest in Disney Plus was within spitting distance of matching Netflix's popularity, at 77% of Netflix total search demand. The day before HBO Max's launch, however, its search interest at its peak was just 16% of Netflix's.
And that's math even a 3-year-old red monster can understand.