The news was first announced late last month by AT&T WarnerMedia executives who continue to double down on HBO Max as the future of AT&T’s content side.
Launched in late April, HBO Max consolidates original programming and licensed content from HBO’s massive library of shows and movies alongside shows and movies from other AT&T-owned brands, including Warner Bros. Studios, CNN, Cartoon Network, Adult Swim and Turner Classic Movies. The app is also the exclusive streaming home of the entire South Park catalog (minus five somewhat controversial episodes).
Launched in early 2010, HBO Go was offered to HBO’s cable and satellite subscribers as a way to access the network’s extensive library of content. Customers logged on to HBO Go on a supported device like a smartphone, tablet or streaming TV device using credentials supplied by their pay TV company.
Five years later, HBO’s parent company Time Warner announced HBO Now, a separate streaming app that allowed customers to access HBO’s content library over the Internet without the need for cable or satellite service. It was one of the first direct-to-consumer offerings from a pay TV network and was quickly replicated across the industry by HBO’s competitors, including Showtime, Starz and Epix, all of whom launched similar apps in the years that followed.
For a while, things were simple: If you subscribed to HBO using cable or satellite, you used HBO Go. If you didn’t have cable or satellite, you used HBO Max. But then, Time Warner — and later, AT&T after it acquired Time Warner in 2018 — started offering third party Internet services the ability to distribute HBO content to their subscribers. By 2019, Amazon, Roku, Apple and Hulu were offering HBO’s shows and movies natively to their customers without the need for a separate app.
What was once considered a profitable strategy to liberate HBO’s content and make it available just about anywhere to anyone who paid for it is now proving to cause problems with a handful of distributors and confusion among consumers.
In April 2020, AT&T launched HBO Max, a new direct-to-consumer streaming service that offered HBO and Warner Bros. content to anyone willing to part with $15 a month — the same price as HBO subscriptions on cable, satellite and other streaming services.
But only certain people would have access to HBO Max at launch, with AT&T largely setting the terms of who would be let in and who would be left out. That’s caused confusion for thousands of customers who have posted questions on social media asking about eligibility and content.
On Facebook and Reddit, posts reviewed by The Desk from customers of YouTube TV and Hulu with Live TV questioned why they could only access HBO movies and shows from within those app despite being told they were paying for HBO Max. Other customers pointed out that only HBO content is available natively within YouTube TV and Hulu with Live TV, and that for the extended library of shows, they needed to use their credentials to log on to HBO Max separately.
For some, this caused even more confusion and frustration: Users of Roku and Amazon thought they found a workaround to accessing HBO Max by subscribing to HBO within YouTube TV and Hulu with Live TV, only to be told they needed access to the HBO Max app itself.
Cable and satellite customers are just as confused: While AT&T made an agreement with some cable companies, including Comcast’s XFinity, to provide free access to HBO Max, some customers continue to use HBO Go, unaware that they have free access to the newer app. Customers of cable services who lack an agreement with AT&T have been forced to use HBO Go, despite paying the same $15 a month for their subscription.
To curb this confusion, AT&T decided last month to retire HBO Go and move everyone on to HBO Max. But the lack of an agreement with some cable companies means customers who pay the same $15 a month for HBO programming through traditional means won’t have access to HBO via a streaming service. And those who are eligible for HBO Max won’t have access to it if they use Roku or Amazon, assuming AT&T still hasn’t reached an agreement with them by the end of the month.
But customer confusion is likely to continue: AT&T will continue to offer HBO Now (which it will relaunch as “HBO”) to customers who use Roku and Amazon Fire TV, will continue to sell HBO subscriptions through the Roku Channel and Amazon Prime Video Channels, and will continue to offer HBO subscriptions to cable customers where there is still no agreement for access to HBO Max.
At the end of the month, only one thing is certain: Depending on the terms set largely by AT&T, some customers will pay $15 a month for HBO and have access to a huge library of HBO and WarnerMedia content through HBO Max, and some customers will pay the same $15 a month for HBO and just have HBO.
(Disclosure: The author of this article owned stock in AT&T at time of publication.)