AT&T has been criticized in recent weeks for its messy rollout of HBO Max, its Warner Media-based streaming service that was supposed to be a one-stop shop for nearly everything owned or licensed by the telecom giant.
One of the biggest points of controversy was how AT&T launched HBO Max in the United States late last month without distribution deals for Roku and Amazon Fire TV hardware, which amount for a combined 70 percent of streaming television devices in American households.
Add to the confusion that AT&T has not one, not two, but several different brands and access points for HBO — from the cable-connected HBO Go to native distribution through Roku, Amazon and Hulu to HBO Now still existing on some devices that don’t support HBO Max and so on — and the rollout of HBO Max has been confusing and sloppy.
Here’s another problem for AT&T: Some customers who pay for HBO aren’t able to access the service across their devices.
The issue is impacting Roku and Amazon subscribers who subscribed to HBO Now natively through those platforms prior to HBO Max’s launch last May. Using their HBO Now credentials, Roku and Amazon-native subscribers were able to access companion HBO Now apps on other devices, including game consoles, iPhones, Android phones and tablets.
When HBO Max launched, it replaced HBO Now on supported devices, and phone and tablet users were asked to install an “update” that swapped out the two services.
Both HBO Max and HBO Now cost the same amount of money — $15 — but HBO Max has a larger content library compared to HBO Now, which only has original series and movies licensed for the HBO cable and satellite channel. Since subscribers are paying the same amount of money for HBO, you would think Roku and Amazon subscribers who are forced to use HBO Now would be able to use HBO Max on other devices that support it, right?
Well, you’d think that — but you’d be wrong.
For whatever reason, when AT&T replaced HBO Now with HBO Max on iOS, Android and other devices, it didn’t link the user credentials of Roku and Amazon HBO Now subscribers to the new service — meaning Roku and Amazon users are forced to use HBO Now on their TV sets and basically nowhere else.
That puts these users at a huge disadvantage compared to cable and satellite subscribers and HBO Max customers on other platforms who are paying the same $15 a month for access to the service and getting way much more content — simply because AT&T doesn’t have a distribution deal with Roku and Amazon.
The website Fierce Video has a list of tweets from users who have been affected by this oversight-based glitch. No solution has been proposed by AT&T since users started complaining about the issue, but subscribers have found that cancelling their HBO subscription through Roku and Amazon, then restarting their subscription through the HBO Max website, unlocks access to both the HBO Now app on Roku and Amazon Fire TV as well as HBO Max on other supported devices with a single set of credentials.
Why make subscribers jump through those hoops? It likely boils down to money: When subscribers pay for HBO natively through Roku and Amazon, both companies take a small cut of the subscription fee (anywhere from 15 to 30 percent) before AT&T gets their share. Since the cost of HBO through these Roku and Amazon is the same $15 a month price point that AT&T charges through the service itself, AT&T loses money when customers subscribe natively through Roku and Amazon.
With HBO Max, AT&T wants to maximize its profits as much as it can, and it would rather customers pay it directly through the HBO Max website than through a third party company like Roku or Amazon. For now, it’s tolerating existing agreements it has with cable and satellite companies (some of whom may have agreed to reduce their cut of subscription revenues in exchange for the ability to offer HBO Max to their customers, as Comcast and others have done), ostensibly because cable and satellite customers are locked into long-term contracts and are less likely to cancel HBO service.
But it is also likely one reason why Apple agreed to terminate its deal with AT&T and stop offering native HBO subscriptions through its Apple TV Plus app in exchange for being one of the few launch partners for HBO Max.
For Roku and Amazon users, their headaches will likely continue for a little while longer.
(Disclosure: At publication time, the author of this story owned stock in AT&T)