Why Max Dropped The HBO Name (And Why This Could Be Good For HBO)

After much speculation and discussion over the last several weeks, Warner Bros. Discovery has announced its big, rebranded streaming service that will bring HBO Max and Discovery+ under one roof. As has widely been presumed, the service will simply be called Max, and it will roll out with three different price points beginning in May. Thus, ushering in yet another new moment in the ongoing streaming wars. Chiefly, WBD is pivoting away from the HBO brand as the anchor for its flagship streaming offering, which is a decision that has prompted a great deal of conversation.

On the one hand, HBO is associated with premium TV, dating back to its earliest golden age hits such as "The Sopranos," as well as "Game of Thrones" and, more recently, "The Last of Us." The list could go on for a mind-numbing amount of time. Instead, CEO David Zaslav is leaning on a new name for a new era. But some believe that taking HBO out of the title is silly, given its long-standing association with quality. However, JB Perrette, WBD's president and CEO of streaming and games, offered a pretty compelling counterpoint during the company's launch event for Max.

"HBO is not TV. HBO is HBO. It needs to stay that way, which is why we will privilege it in the product experience and also not push it to the breaking point by forcing it to take on the full breadth of this new content proposition."

That is, indeed, a good point. HBO had to take on a lot more weight when HBO Max launched, with brand confusion emerging over HBO Max Originals like "FBoy Island" and HBO shows such as the critically-heralded "Succession." Now, HBO can just go back to being HBO as part of Max, and not the anchor of the entire experience.

HBO's burden is lessened

One can certainly call into question the decision to go with "Max" as the name, as it's a little uninspiring on its own, much like how Peacock is a bit odd for NBCUniversal's home streamer. But without HBO, Max is all that's left. Sure, they could have learned into the Warner Bros. name, which has 100 years of quality and iconography associated with it, maybe going with Warner Bros.+ or something like that, but that's a conversation for another time. Largely, this decision had to do with not putting everything from the vast Warner Bros. Discovery library into the HBO box, which was very much a square peg/round hole situation.

Discovery brings with it hundreds of reality and unscripted offerings, such as "90 Day Fiance" and "Flip or Flop." The Max event even included announcements for several new shows in this arena, including "Fixer Upper: The Hotel." Shows like that don't exactly mesh with HBO quite like that new "Game of Thrones" spin-off does, but they do have a huge audience, and they're under WBD's umbrella. So, in that way, getting rid of HBO from the name but leaning into it as a pillar within the service makes a fair amount of sense. Industry analyst Matthew Belloni put it quite well on a recent episode of his podcast "The Town" marking the one-year anniversary of the WarnerMedia/Discovery deal.

"The larger one-stop-shop of all your favorites in one place is a particularly compelling offer considering that the HBO brand [...] has been great for a certain level of clientele. It is not great for other people that see it as being not for them. As long as that service was called HBO Max, people were going to be turned off to becoming subscribers if they don't like the HBO content. [The name change] will, presumably, help that."

HBO and a whole lot more

Indeed, leaning into HBO makes sense for a certain audience, but "House of the Dragon" and "Perry Mason" may not appeal to everyone. And Max absolutely seems to be aiming for everyone, with a new tagline reading "the one to watch for every mood and every moment." The frankly stupefying list of content funnels speaks to that, with the service serving as the home of HBO Originals, Warner Bros. films, Max Originals, the DC Universe, "Harry Potter," an expansive offering of kids content, HGTV, Food Network, Discovery Channel, TLC, ID, and more.

The change not only allows WBD to build a broader brand identity for its service while trying to compete with the likes of Netflix, Disney+, Prime Video, and others in the streaming space, but it also will allow HBO to focus on just doing what HBO does. No longer does the premium cable network have to shoulder the weight of the entire future of a massive media company. Rather, they can be a prestige component of the future. Casey Bloys, Chairman and CEO, HBO and Max Content, had this to say in a statement:

"The Max service is a wide-ranging mosaic of content that will be unmatched in the breadth, reach, and excellence of its offerings. We are unique because we have the best in all categories across the board by any measure — be they ratings, awards, fandom. We know we can satisfy any craving because we have the brands that people love. At Max, they will find what they want, when they want it."

Warner Bros. Discovery's big branding gamble

Things may be a bit easier in some ways for HBO divorced from the larger corporate strategy, but they are arguably more difficult than they've ever been for Zaslav and Warner Bros. Discovery. Rebranding like this at a time when many consumers are feeling worn out by the sheer number of streaming options out there is a risk. And, not for nothing, but the company's stock was down around 6 percent in the immediate hours following the Max announcement. Wall Street is taking a "wait and see" approach here.

Yes, WBD came out swinging, with the announcement of a massive "Harry Potter" series, a trailer for "The Penguin," the return of "True Detective," a new "Big Bang Theory" spin-off, and much more. Heck, they even announced a reality show titled "Barbie Dreamhouse Challenge" that is positioned as a tie-in of sorts to the upcoming "Barbie" movie. You can't accuse them of leaving anything on the table — they're leaning into the brands they have at their disposal in a big way.

As it stands, WBD has just over 96 million subscribers between its various services. To help chip away at its mountain of debt (which sat at $49.5 billion as of February of this year) and truly become a long-term player in the streaming game, they are going to need more than that. HBO is certainly going to be a large part of the equation, but it's no longer the biggest part of the equation. While we need to see how this all shakes out in the coming months, that may prove to be the best thing for HBO in the long term. 

Whether or not it pans out for Max, on the whole, is the biggest of big lingering questions.