Is a pandemic the perfect time to launch a new and relatively expensive streaming service? AT&T sure hopes so.
The phone company is investing billions in HBO Max, its first big entertainment venture since it spent $85 billion for Time Warner in 2018. The good news for its timing: millions are stuck at home, watching more video than ever. The bad news: many of them also out of work and carefully watching their incomes. The service launches Wednesday in the U.S.
“People are going to look at the price point first,” said Steve Nason, research director at Parks Associates. HBO Max costs $15, same as the HBO Now streaming service it's supposed to replace, with discounts after the launch limited to some AT&T customers as well as a one-week free trial. Other new streaming services such as Disney Plus and Quibi launched with cheaper prices and bigger discounts.
Entertainment companies like AT&T’s WarnerMedia are broadly shifting to streaming video, following in Netflix’ wake, as more people drop their traditional cable bundles. Disney launched Disney Plus and the sports-focused ESPN Plus and took control of Hulu from an industry joint venture. Comcast’s NBCUniversal is launching Peacock widely this summer. ViacomCBS is redoing CBS All Access, pumping it up with more programming.
Even Fox Corp. has its Fox Nation app. Apple, a tech company, started a small service of its own. A short-video service targeted to cellphones, Quibi, also hopes to get in on the streaming pie; it hasn't had much success yet.
HBO Max comes stacked with goodies, like browsing a particularly pleasing Blockbuster store — classic quality-TV series from HBO like “The Sopranos," “The Wire” and “Sex and the City;” comfort-food network TV in “Friends” and “The Big Bang Theory;” Superman and Batman movies from DC. The Warner Bros. film library stretches back decades to Hollywood's golden age. There's even a reboot of Looney Tunes.
“Maybe timing is actually good," said Wells Fargo analyst Jennifer Fritzsche. "There might be a Netflix exhaustion factor.” Netflix has predicted extremely strong subscriber gains for this quarter.
But people will have to decide if it's worth paying up for a new video service on top of the “foundational” services many already have: Netflix, the heaps of video that come with an Amazon Prime membership, Hulu and, increasingly, Disney Plus, Nason said.