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Disney+’s Growth Strategy Is Smarter than HBO Max’s

Streaming has drastically altered the entertainment landscape, and HBO Max is stuck playing defense while Disney+ scores big wins. As consumers continue to cut ties with cable packages in favor of streaming, media companies are vying for their dollars and their loyalty. This month, WarnerMedia and Disney both made major announcements about the future of…

Streaming has drastically altered the entertainment landscape, and HBO Max is stuck playing defense while Disney+ scores big wins.

As consumers continue to cut ties with cable packages in favor of streaming, media companies are vying for their dollars and their loyalty. This month, WarnerMedia and Disney both made major announcements about the future of their streaming services, HBO Max and Disney+. One went over like a lead balloon, while the other sent stock prices up to a new record high. The problem isn’t necessarily the quality of the service; both offer content worth recommending. The difference is that in a rapidly changing media landscape, and in the face of the many challenges presented by 2020, HBO Max is playing defense while Disney+ is on the attack.

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In 2013, Netflix’s Ted Sarandos said that “the goal is to become HBO before HBO can become us.” In the seven years since, Sarandos accomplished that and more. Netflix has amassed nearly 200 million subscribers, and it’s acquired or produced unimaginable hours of movies and televisions. HBO had that same amount of time to rethink its brand and delivery system, and so it feels like an unforced error that the company is in the position it’s in today. It’s even more frustrating when one considers that HBO was, as a premium cable provider, a subscription service long before they began to dominate the market. So, even though the recent announcement about its 2021 plans was a bit of a disaster, it’s the latest in a long line of questionable decisions.

RELATED: Christopher Nolan Is Right About Warner Bros.’ HBO Max Release Plans

When news broke that every Warner Bros. movie slated for 2020 or 2021 would premiere simultaneously in theaters (if possible) and on HBO Max, there was an intense and immediate backlash. Christopher Nolan, a longtime champion of the theatrical experience and Warner Bros’. most reliable director, was unusually vocal in his criticism. There’s real worry about the legal, financial and artistic ramifications of WarnerMedia’s bold move, as well as doubt that decisions about next fall and winter had to be made right now.

But that’s mostly Warner Bros.’s problem. HBO Max has a major brand identity crisis on its hand, in that tens of millions of people aren’t sure what it is and don’t know if they have it. When cable began to lose ground to streaming around 2010, HBO created an app for its subscribers to access programming on non-TV devices, called HBO Go. In 2015, it added a standalone service for people without cable, called HBO Now. Then, 2020 saw the rather late and confusing entry of HBO Max into the streaming wars. HBO Max, which bought up properties like Friends and Harry Potter to lure customers, was intended to be more of a one-stop-shop of popular IP, Warner Bros. movies and HBO originals.

RELATED: Disney Animation: Every New Project Announced at Investors Day

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The rollout did not go well, to say the least. Consumers with pre-existing HBO accounts didn’t know if they were eligible, and they didn’t understand how it was different than HBO Go or HBO Now. Then content, including the Harry Potter series, vanished as hastily made deals fell apart. HBO Max currently has about 30 million subscribers, and the planned digital debut of would-be blockbusters starting with Wonder Woman 1984 might help grow that number. In the long term, however, HBO Max needs to do a much better job of explaining itself to an audience with limited time and money for streaming.

Disney’s decade is the HBO story in reverse. Not that long ago, the House of Mouse was struggling to define itself. It knew it had to attract more than Disney Princess fans to stay relevant, but Pirates of the Caribbean’s returns were diminishing and attempts like Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time came up short. Fortunately, the studio had just spent billions to acquire Pixar and Star Wars and was about to scoop up Marvel. That sound investment and foresight sealed Disney’s fate long before a single point of access app was in the cards.

Just as key to its success was that Disney had much more experience with vertical integration. When BB-8 stole audiences’ hearts, Disney could make an animated series about him, license t-shirts and install a meet and greet with a photo opportunity at Walt Disney World. It’s that kind of synergistic thinking that made Disney+ all but a sure thing as a streamer. At last week’s Investors Day, the company proudly presented a virtual smorgasbord of Star Wars, Marvel and Pixar offerings that genuinely excited its customer base of 86 million subscribers. It’s also worth noting they avoided discussion about the near future, but continued to embrace the importance of theatrical release. Disney’s coveted properties are all part of a user-friendly pop culture ecosystem that consumers have been groomed to understand and participate in.

KEEP READING: Disney+ Has an $8-9 Billion Budget for 2024

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About The Author


Rita Dorsch
(169 Articles Published)

Rita is a film and TV writer for CBR, and freelance writer and author. She teaches writing and theatre for Penn State and Kent State Universities. She studied writing and theatre at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. She lives and works out of the Greater Pittsburgh area.

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