Too Much TV: Your TV Talking Points For Wednesday, April 12th, 2023
It's amazing how bad Warner Bros. Discovery is at telling its story
Here's everything you need to know about the world of television for Wednesday, April 12th, 2023.
WARNER BROS. DISCOVERY EMBRACES FAMILIAR IP TO THE 'MAX'
I spent a few years as a financial reporter and one thing I quickly learned is to discern between an actual new product launch and the launch of a struggling product with a new name. A company's core product would need a refresh due to some combination of customer unhappiness, revenue challenges, and investor unhappiness. And the next thing you know, "Zoom Cola" is now called "Zoomie" and with the change comes a new branding color, some shiny new ads, and a promise that this new idea bears no resemblance to that struggling thing you were so happy to promote a year ago. This, they'd argue, is a new customer-focused product that combines the best of the old product with all this new stuff that kinda looks as if it was originally developed by Team Zoom Cola.
So I found today's official unveiling of the new-ish streaming service "Max" by Warner Bros. Discovery head David Zaslav and other company executives to be very familiar.
The new service launches on May 23rd in the U.S. and plans for the new service include a lot of new content, albeit some things that had previously been announced. But the over-arching story of they presented was of a march through the land of familiar IP. New shows from the Game Of Thrones and Harry Potter world. A new series based on something related to The Big Bang Theory (although that is just "in development"). A new installment of the True Detective franchise. A new series based on Gremlins. A new series from Magnolia's Chip and Johanna Gaines. A few documentaries that were originally destined for Discovery+ and CNN. A couple of series that (although it wasn't mentioned in the presentation) will premiere simultaneously on linear channels such as HGTV and Discovery.
There were a lot of new titles announced and I do not doubt that some of them will be quite good. But what really happened here?
It's important to remember that "Max" was originally supposed to be a combination of WBD's two core streaming services, HBO Max and Discovery+. In fact, in the months leading up to the merger between Warner Media and Discovery, soon-to-be CEO David Zaslav cited the idea in interviews as one of the best rationales for the merger. Together the two services would create a "world-class customer experience." Sure, many people inside both companies were skeptical of the idea. But as anyone who has ever pitched an idea to David Zaslav will tell you, like most CEOs he has a stubborn streak that can blind him from the obvious.
So the merger closed and the company announced the combined service would launch in the Spring/early Summer of 2023. But there were problems. Some of them are technical, and some of them content-driven. And some of the issues came down to a core misunderstanding of the people who subscribe to both services.
As it turns, out, many of the current Discovery+ subscribers are quite content with that streaming service. It has a lower price point than HBO Max and for many of them, having just unscripted and reality TV available to stream was just fine with them. Internal studies commissioned after the merger apparently showed an extreme reluctance of these core subscribers to "trade up" to a more expensive combined service.
And then there were just the technical challenges that had to be overcome. The tech stacks for both services had severe limitations and in a perfect world, a combined service would have launched no sooner than next year. Launching it in mid-2023 was deemed to be nearly impossible if the goal was a massive combined service. To say nothing of the fact that Zaslav had promised a gradual global roll-out over the next year. And in many markets - especially Europe - Discovery+ currently includes a collection of live linear channels. Navigating all of that into one combined platform was going to be challenging.
So why didn't Warner Bros. Discovery simply stay with the status quo and push back the Max launch a few months? Because Zaslav and other Warner Bros Discovery executives have continued to promise a mid-2023 launch for a "new" streaming service. And failing to hit that self-imposed benchmark would likely have a negative impact on the company's stock. That's bad news if you want to keep investors happy. Or even more importantly, rake in millions of dollars in bonuses that are benchmarked to the stock price.
Based on the limited look at what the new Max looks like, I can say the service appears to be a big improvement on HBO Max. But without having the chance to test some of the issues that plague the current service (like search), I'll have to see once I get the opportunity to dive in completely.
But what struck me about today's presentation was that this is all really just the "New Coke-ization" of HBO Max. A new branding color, an updated app. And a bunch of new projects, all of which would probably have ended up on HBO Max anyway.
It's all an effort at misdirection. To highlight the new and hope that no one notices that behind the curtain, it's all just HBO Max under another name.
With a bunch of stuff added from Discovery+.
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AND IT'S AMAZING HOW BAD WARNER BROS. DISCOVERY IS AT TELLING ITS STORY
One of the under-reported stories of the Warner Bros. Discovery era so far is how bad the company is about telling its story. Every company - even ones run by people who don't much like the press - need to be out there in the public arena effectively communicating with investors and its customers. This means more than showing up a few carefully-coordinated investor conferences or events sponsored by one of the big media companies. This means having executives giving interviews and answering uncomfortable questions. It also means getting out ahead of the news cycle about your company. Silence may be golden, but it's hell on your stock price. Because as anyone who has spent anytime around Wall Street will tell you, stock prices are often driven by emotion and often that emotion responds to whatever stories are floating around in the ether.
As an example, let's look at the stories surrounding HBO Max removing content from its service. There was no notice about the move, which prompted several days of "what the hell is going on at HBO Max?" stories. Then the company reluctantly put out a statement that the moves were part of the overall company restructuring. An approach which is almost genetically designed to evoke the worst response from subscribers and the press. A few days later, there were a couple of clumsy statements that came off a bit like "hey, we're only removing stuff no one watches or that isn't very good." Once again, not an ideal response from a crisis management point of view. Then eventually the company admitted that a number of removed shows - including an unseen season of The Nevers - were headed to a number of WBD-branded FAST channels at places like Pluto and Roku.
It doesn't require twenty years in the PR business to realize the smart move would have been announce the shows were leaving, but were headed in a few weeks to some new FAST channels. It would have been an almost nothing story and everyone would have moved on after a day or two. Instead of Warner Bros. Discovery allowing weeks of bad press to follow it around while the company mostly remained silent.
But even when the company has said something officially, it can often be tone-deaf and dismissive. When HBO Max began removing scores of animated titles, shutting down productions and canceling some completed but unaired animated shows, the explanation was that animation "wasn't a priority for the company" and that HBO Max couldn't appeal to everyone. There was also going to be a pullback from family programming in general, due to a lack of interest from subscribers.
Aside from the optics of the comments, observers were quick to contrast those comments from several months ago with today's announcements, which included several new animated titles. As well as an announcement that many of the Looney Tunes programs that were removed from HBO Max earlier this year would be returning. And that *of course* animation was a priority at the new shiny Max.
That lack of a solid messaging plan also came into focus today during a Q&A with press after the presentation.
Casey Bloys, chairman and CEO of HBO and Max content was asked about author J.K. Rowling's participation in the new Harry Potter TV series as an executive producer. Her strong anti-trans comments and aggressive battles with trans personalities has led to boycotts of her books and a distancing from many of the familiar stars of the Harry Potter films.
Bloys declined to comment on Rowling’s views when asked how they may affect the ability to find talent for the series:
“No, I don’t think this is the forum,” Bloys said. “That’s a very online conversation, very nuanced and complicated and not something we’re going to get into.”
“Our priority is what’s on the screen,” Bloys continued. “Obviously, the ‘Harry Potter’ story is incredibly affirmative and positive and about love and self-acceptance. That’s our priority — what’s on screen.”
In terms of the TV series, Bloys stated simply: “[Rowling] will be involved. She’s an executive producer on the show. Her insights are going to be helpful on that.”
He continued: “The TV show is new and we’re excited about that, but, remember, we’ve been in the ‘Potter’ business for 20 years. This is not a new decision for us, we’re very comfortable being in the ‘Potter’ business.”
As answers go..this is not good. It's clear that Bloys expected the question and had prepared comments ready to go. But no matter what you think of Rowlings in 2023, characterizing the question as a "very online conversation" is just needlessly clumsy and insulting.
This is a problem that is not going to go away and the response from Bloys just ensures several days of flummoxed comments from fans of the books as well as everyone who has ever been associated with one of the Harry Potter films.
TWEET OF THE DAY
WHAT'S NEW FOR WEDNESDAY:
American Manhunt: The Boston Marathon Bombing (Netflix)
Celeste Barber: Fine, Thanks (Netflix)
It's All Right! (Todo Está Bien) (Disney+)
Nova: Weathering The Future (PBS)
Operation: Nation (Netflix)
Rennervations Series Premiere (Disney+)
Single Drunk Female Season Premiere (Freeform)
Smother In Law (Netflix)
34th Annual GLAAD Media Awards (Hulu)
Click Here to see the list of all of the upcoming premiere dates for the next few months.
SEE YOU THURSDAY!
If you have any feedback, send it along to Rick@AllYourScreens.com and follow me on Twitter @aysrick.