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June 05, 2020

When the Medium Is the Max

The streaming platform HBO Max required “the creation of a whole new medium,” says WarnerMedia’s Robert Greenblatt. But would you expect anything less from the company that brought you The Sopranos, Sex and the City and Game of Thrones?

Mara Reinstein
  • Robert Greenblatt (standin ) with Kevin Reilly and Sarah Aubrey

    Rocco Ceselin
  • Rocco Ceselin

Everything is relative. So says Robert Greenblatt as he prepares to answer a question about the most daunting challenge in his career.

For example, he relates, when he became Showtime's entertainment president in 2003, he faced the task of turning an also-ran premium cable channel into a buzzy, Emmy-winning powerhouse.

In 2011, as the new chairman of NBC Entertainment, he fretted that it was impossible to reverse the course of a network mired in fourth place. (For the record, he succeeded at both.)

But the charge before him now? The chairman of WarnerMedia Entertainment and Direct-to-Consumer admits it: "This is the most complex undertaking I've ever been involved in."

"This" is HBO Max, the newly launched WarnerMedia direct-to-consumer subscription platform. It's also the latest addition to the robust streaming market.

For customers already spoiled by the multitude of cord-cutting options — Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, CBS All Access, Disney+, Apple TV+ and NBC's forthcoming Peacock network — here comes a new $14.99-a-month option that boasts 10,000 hours of curated programming that crosses all genres and demographics.

Of course, it's anchored by a heavyweight brand. As the name implies, HBO Max features the full runs of cultural touchstones such as Game of Thrones, Succession, The Sopranos, Sex and the City and Westworld.

Thanks to WarnerMedia's deep portfolio and third-party acquisitions, it's also the exclusive online home of The Big Bang Theory, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Pretty Little Liars, Doctor Who, South Park and Sesame Street.

And it has film franchises, such as The Lord of the Rings and The Matrix, plus movies centered on DC Comics superheroes like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. No wonder the tag line in the Valentine's Day teaser was "It's where HBO meets so much more."

Speaking of more: HBO Max is also The One With All the Friends Episodes — plus the 16-years-in-the-making cast reunion special.

Then there's the Max Originals portion. To compete with the aforementioned rivals, Greenblatt and team are delivering a full slate of originals, ranging from fresh Looney Tunes Cartoons to a 10-episode adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's bestselling novel Americanah, starring Oscar winner Lupita Nyong'o.

They're also working with top talents who need no last names: J.J. Greg. Ellen. Mindy. Issa. Reese.

Corporate parent AT&T's all-in strategy calls for an investment of billions over the next three years across all of WarnerMedia Entertainment, rising to $4 billion by 2024.

The goal for HBO Max is to reach 50 million domestic subscribers and 75 million to 90 million subscribers by year-end 2025 across the U.S., Latin America and Europe.

By contrast, Disney+ has said it expects to have 60 million to 90 million subscribers by 2024, while Netflix's subscriber base is at 158 million. HBO and Cinemax currently have 43 million subscribers across all platforms in the U.S.

Changing the direction of a network is difficult enough, but this is the creation of a whole new medium," Greenblatt marvels.

"Our team has had to step up the content. and from a technical side, we've been trying to figure out how this will be distributed to providers and through digital platforms and the customer. but i'm not complaining. It's exciting because this is the future."

Though HBO Max is still in its infancy — it launched May 27 — top executives have had access to a beta version since late 2019.

Over the holidays, chief content officer Kevin Reilly (also the president of TNT, TBS and truTV) toggled between the 1987 film Full Metal Jacket, two episodes of Friends, a Wonder Woman cartoon, Watchmen and the HBO documentary Andre the Giant. "The range was just so impressive," he says.

In other words, to quote HBO's slogan since 1996, it's not TV. But it's not Netflix, either. Reilly notes that the product will have an uncluttered interface and a simple "Recommended by Humans" feature instead of a slew of computer-generated options culled from viewer habits.

"It'll be a richer experience," he says, "because an algorithm doesn't know you as well as it's supposed to, and that never-ending barrage can be suffocating."

Not all new episodes of original series will be bingeable. There's a measured rollout process: often the first three episodes will premiere simultaneously, followed by weekly drops.

"There's something to that weekly anticipation," he says. "We want a cultural impact, and it's hard to have a cultural impact when it's here today and gone tomorrow."

Ultimately, the programming will define HBO Max. Head of original content Sarah Aubrey says there's something for everybody — not only in the first wave, but in the months and years to come. "There's a cadence to the rollout and in our content that I think will be really satisfying," she says.

The initial lineup supports her assertion. Original programming includes Love Life, a rom-com anthology from producer Paul Feig (Freaks and Geeks), in which a Millennial New Yorker (Anna Kendrick) pieces together her relationships in a quest for happiness. (For more on Love Life, see "Love and Learn")

Raised by Wolves, overseen by producer-director Ridley Scott (Gladiator), is a sci-fi thriller that centers around two androids and their human children on a mysterious new planet.

The unscripted competition series Legendary, from the Queer Eye production team, takes viewers inside the world of high-fashion voguing "balls."

Other announced shows include The Flight Attendant, a drama starring former Big Bang Theory star Kaley Cuoco, and Tokyo Vice, based on journalist Jake Adelstein's memoir of covering the crime beat in Japan. Ansel Elgort (Baby Driver) plays the lead, and Michael Mann is a director and executive producer.

Even Elmo is getting in on the action: Aubrey raves about The Not Too Late Show With Elmo, in which the furry favorite from Sesame Street pulls a Johnny Carson in his bedroom with a sidekick and a band.

In addition to more than a dozen original new shows, kids can enjoy new work from author-playwright Mo Willems, whose two-year deal makes him HBO Max's first artist-in-residence.

The platform will stream his star-studded live-action special and a new animated special based on his Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed book.

The Gen Z–targeted slate includes films and series from über-producer Greg Berlanti (Riverdale, Arrow), including UNpregnant, a drama about two teens on a road trip to terminate a pregnancy.

A next-generation installment of Gossip Girl from producer Josh Schwartz — with Kristen Bell reprising her role as the saucy narrator — and the musical series Grease: Rydell High may also appeal.

Fans of celeb business series can watch Mark Wahlberg reveal the complexities of his life as an actor-entrepreneur in the eight-part documentary Wahl Street. They may also enjoy a new competition show from Mark Burnett starring Bethenny Frankel. Or they may just want to watch competitive flower arranging on Full Bloom.

"We don't have the goal to take down Netflix or Amazon," Reilly says. "But we want the consumer to know that we are a full-service brand that will give you a wide range of programming. We'll have a hard-hitting documentary like [recent Sundance Film Festival acquisition] On The Record and [also] Sesame Street. We don't just stay in that one lane."

Few said it at the time. but when AT&T acquired Time Warner Inc. for $85 billion in 2018 (and renamed it WarnerMedia), the wheels were set in motion to create an all-encompassing streaming platform.

The race was already in full gear for Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu, while Disney+ and Apple TV+ were revving up. (The stand-alone HBO Now streaming service, which features the network's full library, had launched in 2015.)

In October 2018, WarnerMedia CEO John Stankey took the stage at the Vanity Fair New Establishment summit and made it official by announcing that a new direct-to-consumer streaming platform would incorporate the firm's full portfolio of entertainment brands.

(Stankey is now president and COO of AT&T, and Jason Kilar has stepped in as WarnerMedia CEO.)

Shortly after, Reilly was named HBO Max chief content officer alongside his role as president of TBS, TNT and truTV.

Charged with charting the creative identity of the yet-to-be-named WarnerMedia platform, he brought in Aubrey, then TNT's executive vice-president of original programming, to spearhead original programming. (Their relationship dates to the early aughts, when he was president of NBC and she coproduced Friday Night Lights.)

Greenblatt's appointment as chairman of WarnerMedia Entertainment and Direct-to-Consumer was announced in March 2019.

The platform didn't yet have a name, a rollout strategy or a programming direction, but it did have one sure thing: the HBO brand name.

"We had a blank slate, but pretty quickly we made the decision to draw a line around HBO," Reilly recalls. "The fact is that HBO is at the highest end of aspirational brands in the country, and not just when it comes to entertainment. You're talking about consistent execution of quality."

Besides, as Greenblatt puts it, "When you start a new product in the marketplace, it's so much better to bring in something with brand equity already built in as opposed to, you know, '' Or even Hulu." It was a start.

But because of the brand's limitations — "It skews more adult males," Greenblatt says — the platform needed to expand. To the max.

"We needed to focus on women and include the kids and family programming and reality shows," he adds. "Then you start to present a curated platform into a bigger, broader offering with HBO's hallmarks. The focus is still on excellence, which is one of the guiding principles of HBO."

In a "WarnerMedia Day" investor presentation held last October on the Warner Bros. Burbank lot, the architects confirmed many key details. The name: HBO Max. The launch: May. The price: $14.99 a month, putting it at the top among its competitors.

(Greenblatt notes that many preexisting HBO customers will access the platform free of charge, as part of the bundle.)

Executives also announced deals with some of Hollywood's highest-wattage producers.

Writer-producer-director J.J. Abrams, who signed a multiyear deal last June valued at roughly $500 million with WarnerMedia, took the stage that day and announced that he was working on a sci-fi show called Demimonde for HBO and was in talks with HBO Max about projects he can't wait for the world to see.

A deal with Ellen DeGeneres will yield three programs: Ellen's Home Design Challenge, the reality show First Dates Hotel and Little Ellen, an animated series based on the misadventures of a seven-year-old Ellen.

Meanwhile, Let Them All Talk, a film from director Steven Soderbergh starring Meryl Streep, will appear on HBO Max, as will two romantic comedies from Reese Witherspoon's Hello Sunshine production company.

Conan O'Brien, whose Conan show is on TBS, will put together five stand-up comedy specials featuring up-and-comers.

Elizabeth Banks, Issa Rae and Mindy Kaling will each produce half-hour comedy series for the platform as well.

Banks will head DC Super Hero High, set at a boarding school for gifted children; Rae's show follows a female rap duo from Miami trying to make it big; Kaling's College Girls chronicles the lives of three freshman roommates in Vermont.

Aubrey notes that the company's long-standing relationships with many of the producers gave it an inside edge.

"They're all excited about the platform, because it's a new opportunity," she says. "So we sat down with them and talked about their passions and their targets." She adds that Kaling and Rae approached her with specific pitches.

Yet for all the new series options, at the end of a long day, millions of customers just want their Friends. That's why prying all 236 episodes of the iconic 1994–2004 Warner Bros.–produced NBC sitcom away from Netflix was so crucial.

"It was on my to-do list from minute one," Reilly says. Indeed, Reilly — who, as an exec at NBC, screened the original pilot back in the day — says he was shocked when he received Netflix ratings for the first time and saw that the adventures of the Central Perk gang still garner high viewer engagement.

"It's very meaningful to multiple generations," he says. "And to kick off our platform with Friends was a really important statement."

Kicking it off with retro episodes is one thing; unveiling a new reunion is another. As confirmed in February, all six Friends stars will sit down together in front of the cameras for the first time since 2004 to reminisce about the series and its legacy.

How anticipated is the special? A blurry photo Jennifer Aniston posted on Instagram of her and her five former castmates has garnered more than 16 million likes since October.

"We know all of them personally, and the great news is that they are in a place where all six are enjoying the moment," Greenblatt says. "It's not that they wouldn't be enjoying it 25 years after they first did it, but it's in the zeitgeist in a way that I think even surprises them. And they're still really good friends, which is the cliché."

Greenblatt wouldn't rule out additional specials, but he says the six will never reprise their characters and hang out in Monica's old purple apartment. "As my grandma used to say, there isn't enough tea in China to convince them to do that," he says with a laugh.

On the phone earlier this year, Aubrey says she knows what she's going to do on launch day. "I'm going to celebrate with my team, who have been burning the midnight oil with smiles on their faces for nine months," she says. "And it may or may not involve a martini."

Then it's back to work. "John Stankey has told us over and over that 'perfect is the enemy of good,'" she says. "We want this to succeed, but we know the entertainment world is in a sea change, and we're going to try a lot of things. Some may not work, and we'll learn from it. But we definitely have a game plan for several years into the future."

That includes breaking into the Emmy race. "I'm very superstitious, but we definitely have the creators that can get us there," she says.

Greenblatt is more firm: "Of course I want the Emmys! What's the most award-winning network? HBO. That is what you strive for. It's not our first goal, and it may not happen immediately, but yeah, we want to win."

Until then, they'll keep delivering worthwhile programming — and hoping that audiences don't reach content oversaturation.

So far, so good. "It doesn't seem like there is an end in sight," Greenblatt says. "It sounds ridiculous to even say that 10,000 hours of programming is on the low end compared to other platforms. The difference is that we're in the business of trying to make every hour count."

For more on HBO Max, see the latest issue of emmy magazine.

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 5, 2020

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