HBO’s parent, WarnerMedia, is confusing the masses by launching a new broader streaming service called HBO Max alongside existing services HBO NOW and HBO Go. The reasons why form a complex but fascinating history of modern American media development.
HBO Is the Original TV Subscription Service
Back when televised content came into the home via microwave antennas instead of internet tubes, HBO was founded as a paid service for the best content available in sports, comedy, films, and documentaries. Its first broadcast in November 1972 was an NHL game followed by a Paul Newman and Henry Fonda movie.
Since its inception, HBO has thrived as a subscription-based television service throughout the satellite, digital, and streaming eras. While it was usually America’s more affluent households that could afford the satellite dishes or cable boxes required to even access the expensive subscription, countless Americans have seen hotels and motels advertising “Free HBO.” This replaced the ubiquitous “Free Color TV” attraction.
It was more than exclusive content for adults and children that made HBO a national media giant. Alongside the success of HBO’s original specials, a steady growth of complicated contracts with customers, partners, and competitors alike made the HBO brand nationally synonymous with premium content, while simultaneously building a massive headache of rights restrictions, access issues, and exclusivity deals that could all vary based on countless minute factors.
HBO Is a Tangle of Decades-Old Contractual Relationships
Over the decades, HBO grew into what it is today through all kinds of consolidations, buyouts, joint-venture groups, and more business nonsense; all while focusing on the paying customers who still might have an HBO dish in their backyard (or, gods forbid, their front yard). These legal obligations are the primary driver behind WarnerMedia’s decision to “simplify” the issue by launching a whole new service instead of untangling this legal nightmare.
HBO’s first move into the digital space launched in 2001: a free add-on service for existing subscribers called HBO On Demand. It’s still around, although only existing subscribers can access it. Eight years later, HBO launched HBO on Broadband, which was rebranded as HBO Go the following year. It was functionally similar to HBO On Demand, but instead of only being available to HBO’s direct subscribers through a cable box, HBO Go was made digitally available through contractual partnerships for customers that held their own contracts with companies like AT&T, Comcast, Cox, DirecTV, Dish, and more.
Still, even with the launch of the HBO Go streaming service, the only way to pay for HBO was to subscribe via a TV provider. You couldn’t pay HBO for it directly.
Fourteen years after HBO On Demand launched, HBO created HBO Now as a standalone subscription that could compete with emerging streaming services like Netflix and the Blockbuster Movie Pass. You could subscribe to it from HBO’s website, even without a TV or cable contract.
As this was HBO’s new service, the content was mostly limited to HBO originals. In 2020, HBO’s parent company WarnerMedia developed a massive expansion of HBO Now called HBO Max that won’t replace HBO Now but will leverage the parent’s massive holdings across the whole of mediadom to expand the content offering overall.
HBO has a massive existing customer base to consider. While the number of services is confusing, new and old customers will get a substantively better product with HBO Max. Meanwhile, HBO can still honor the complex contracts with the millions of customers and dozens of partners that HBO has engaged over the past half century.