It’s not HBO Max, It’s TV

How to dilute a once-premium brand

The Warner Brothers/Discovery merger has been the big backend story in media lately. The world best knows the former entity as a film studio, and the latter as a producer of semi-educational programming. Yet the most obvious way consumers are feeling this merger isn’t with either of those brands directly, but rather through HBO Max, the main streaming source by which people view that conglomerate’s content. These are tough and often baffling times for the HBO brand name, which has gone from encapsulating the early decades of what we now call prestige television to its current standing as a ludicrous mishmash of lesser brand names.

HBO, which stands for Home Box Office, had its origins in cable television. The basic premise was, for a nominal extra fee, your cable box could access premium channels which typically had major Hollywood movies before basic cable did. Where normal cable channels relied heavily on advertising, and thus ratings, HBO received its funding only from the subscription fee. In theory, HBO didn’t need anyone to actually watch its content at all. Much of their earliest original programming, from Tales from the Crypt to The Larry Sanders Show, was weirdly niche and adult.

HBO’s first truly mainstream title was the big-budget production of Game of Thrones, the impossible dream fulfilled for fantasy nerds everywhere. The show was an effective adaptation of the huge, sprawling political epic A Song of Ice And Fire from George R. R. Martin. Game of Thrones pushed boundaries in terms of its flippant, casual disregard for the survivability of central characters with frequently disturbing violent and sexual story beats.

Then the showrunners ran out of source material, and, for various reasons, once diehard fans took a hard turn against the work. Despite only ending in 2019, the franchise already feels like ancient history. But this hasn’t stopped HBO from chasing the dragon with eight Game of Thrones spinoffs supposedly in development, the latest being a Jon Snow prequel. The news of that project comes on the  heels of the cancelation of more distinctive projects like Made For Love and Raised by Wolves, leaving HBO with increasingly little unique, genuinely new content. It doesn’t help that, outside of the rare viral hit like The White Lotus, attempted reboots of classic HBO brands like The Sopranos and Sex and the City tend to suck up all the publicity.

This is probably how we got to the point of eight in development Games of Thrones spinoffs, just because the media reports on those stories. More than just being fodder for endless unwanted pitches, though, Game of Thrones contributed to this change in perspective chiefly by inspiring the creation of HBO Max. There’s a reason why they call the service HBO Max, despite HBO being a relatively small part of the greater Warner/Discovery media empire. The same fantasy nerds who made Game of Thrones such a huge pop culture moment were also the exact same people who, being on the cutting edge of technology, had little interest in archaic structures like premium add-ons to cable subscriptions. Even as HBO Max ultimately postdated Game of Thrones itself. The service itself is just the latest in a series of attempts to deal with the new problem HBO had of people actually wanting to watch their shows, something which wasn’t originally supposed to be important to their production model.

HBO now finds itself cornered by the very same commercialist forces it was originally trying to distinguish itself from, thanks to HBO Max. The big irony is that originally Warner Brothers was trying to make itself more like HBO rather than the other way around. When the studio finally decided it was time to make its own DC Comics Universe to compete with Disney’s own Marvel Comics Universe, it turned to Zack Snyder, who at this point had already made a name for himself adapting Watchmen into a movie that was, for all intents and purposes, an art house film about superheroes with a ludicrously high budget.

Now Warner Brothers has moved away from that kind of intellectually rigorous superhero movie model to one that’s increasingly difficult to distinguish from the Kevin Feige Marvel model. But it’s not just there that Warner Brothers embraced franchises. They’ve been trying for years to turn Fantastic Beasts into the new Harry Potter, despite increasingly awkward off-set scandals. Then there’s the sheer aesthetic weirdness of calling the movie series Fantastic Beasts despite the films being less Ace Ventura: Harry Potter edition and more The Adventures of Dumbledore and also this weird zoologist guy who keeps showing up for some reason.

If you thought that Ace Ventura reference was antiquated, don’t look at Space Jam: A New Legacy, a movie that exists mostly to remind people that Warner Brothers owns the rights to a lot of franchises. This includes properties no one really thinks of as franchises, like Casablanca and A Clockwork Orange. Such is the sheer thirst for referencing that HBO has approved a new adult animated version of Scooby Doo featuring only Velma, not the rest of the gang. Also, in this iteration, Velma is South Asian.

 So much of the content on HBO Max just seems to be edgy yet pointless, like a bad fever dream of the nineties. This is good news for…well, Apple TV+ mostly. As the only major streaming service to not release user data, Apple TV+ has naturally crawled into HBO’s old niche of being the brand name associated with cool highbrow entertainment that people have heard of but don’t necessarily watch. Warner Brothers Discovery, by contrast, now aspires to have HBO Max represent so much content from so many places you don’t even need any other streaming services–an amusing enough irony given the origins of the HBO brand name.

It’s not necessarily a bad niche for HBO Max to inhabit. Disney is in a very awkward place by comparison, since while it has more content overall, they’re divided between Disney+, for all the famous shows, and Hulu, all the stuff they don’t really want people to associate that closely with the Disney brand. HBO Max has also scooped up most of the situation comedy market, with Friends and The Big Bang Theory between them firmly establishing their brand’s dominance in that area. The renewal of more HBO-style sitcoms like Hacks, Starstruck, and Righteous Gemstones likewise allows HBO Max to maintain some degree of pretension, even if as in the classic HBO brand style, these shows are better at grabbing publicity than actual ratings.

Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Paramount+ are all by comparison fumbling to define their brands, with the genres and themes of their shows being all over the place. HBO Max is quietly emerging as the most reliable service of the set, if only because I can use a phrase like HBO-style sitcom and you can make a pretty decent guess what I’m talking about. Yet paradoxically, the more popular HBO Max becomes, the less coherent the HBO brand name becomes.

It has increasingly divorced the name’s meaning from the network’s historical context and motives and now just broadly means: people who take television seriously as an art form. Which isn’t even inaccurate. The behind-the-scenes featurettes on Game of Thrones demonstrate that the showrunners took everything they did very seriously. The problem was just that by the end they were very seriously exploring very stupid ideas, and the occasional gem notwithstanding, we can likely expect more of that from the upcoming Warner Brothers Discovery slate.

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William Schwartz

William Schwartz is a reporter and film critic based in Seoul, South Korea. He writes primarily for HanCinema, the world's largest and most popular English language database for South Korean television dramas and films.

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