Sure, 'Max' sounds dumb, but HBO Max needed a reboot

WB needed a big change, it doesn't matter what it's called.

Warner Bros. CEO David Zaslav. (Danny Moloshok / reuters)

There are many things I think of when I hear the name "Max." There's Max Headroom, the '80s AI icon that's been on my mind a lot lately. Mad Max! Max Payne! Every friend I've ever had named Max (whose names I've always been jealous of). Even Homer Simpson's alternate persona, Max Power. But there's no universe where I associate "Max" with HBO, even though we've been living with "HBO Max" for years. "HBO" was always the dominant part of that name, whereas "Max" felt like a vestigial remnant from its sister network Cinemax.

Screenshot of a Warner Bros. Discovery press conference showing CEO David Zaslav and a logo for new streaming service Max.
Warner Bros. Discovery

So I'm sure that many viewers will be surprised to learn that HBO Max will be rebranded as "Max" on May 23rd. Warner Bros. CEO David Zaslav, who spearheaded the $43 billion merger between WB and his previous company Discovery, announced the new service during a media event this morning. It's been a year since Zaslav finalized that merger and announced his intentions to combine each network's content. And, given the increasingly volatile world of streaming media, he likely had to move quickly. But the rebranding seems like a missed opportunity to align the new service with something people already know and love.

Now, to be clear, Zaslav's desire to build something new makes sense. HBO Max's May 2020 launch was notoriously rocky, so much so that it led to a round of executive firings. HBO Max was a blatant attempt to catch up with Disney+, which hit 10 million subscribers just a day after its debut. But it couldn't compete with Disney's seemingly limitless library of content. A month after HBO Max arrived, AT&T (TimeWarner's owner at the time) said the service only had 4.1 million active users. The company tried to make it seem more popular by saying it had 23.6 million "wholesale" subscribers, but those were mostly existing HBO customers who had never touched the HBO Max app.

As a relatively new Warner Bros. leader, Zaslav likely wanted to make a mark with a service of his very own. (Media executives just can't help themselves, remember Jeffrey Katzenberg's Quibi?) So long HBO Max, hello something that combines HBO's prestigious content with Discovery's vast library of unscripted reality shows. During today's media event, Warner Bros. executives stressed that the company wanted to highlight HBO's world-renowned branding — "HBO is not TV, HBO is HBO!" someone proclaimed boldly. But they also hinted that the company didn't want to stuff too much into "HBO" as a concept.

I also bet that Zaslav and crew talked to plenty of advisors and focus groups who made it clear that HBO would never be considered as family-friendly as Disney. A cautious parent may not want to subscribe to an HBO service, even if it was the only way to watch a new Discovery series for kids. As one WB executive pointed out, the company used to see double-digit shares of kids programming across their many networks, but that's "virtually disappeared" in the streaming era.

With the Max refresh, Warner Bros. is trying to fix many of HBO Max's underlying problems. The company says it's aiming to increase engagement (having a ton of new content helps!), enhance retention, strengthen performance and optimize monetization. A carousel of personalized recommendations should help to surface content users may ignore, and WB says Max will also be able to alert people if their subscription payments fail. These are basic features for any modern subscription service, so it's shocking to learn that HBO Max couldn't manage them on its own.

Of course, WB is also trying to "optimize monetization" by raising the subscription cost for 4K viewers. If you want to see Game of Thrones or the upcoming Flash movie in 4K, you'll need to spend $4 more for Max's "Ultimate tier." That's similar to Netflix's 4K strategy, so it's not entirely surprising, but it's still annoying.

Let me be truly cynical: It doesn't really matter what Max is called. We're awash in terribly-named streaming services, like Peacock and Paramount+. It would have been nice to see WB highlight one of its most prominent properties, but lopping off the first half of HBO Max probably makes more sense than trying to hype up another ridiculous media name (Hulu somehow made it work, but Quibi will forever sound dumb).

No matter what it's called, we'll still rush to Max to catch the latest episode of Succession or The Last of Us. In this era of streaming networks dumping mountains of content on us, it's somewhat refreshing to have premium shows airing weekly. That gives us time to truly absorb major events (like the most recent Succession shocker), and space to anticipate what comes next. Ultimately, that's HBO's superpower, and Zaslav knows it. When combined with the onslaught of cheap and addictive content from Discovery, he might be able to turn Max into a true Disney+ competitor.

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