It’s been a stressful week. Over the last several days, my beloved HBO Max—far and away my most-used streaming service—has been the subject of rumors.
After Tuesday’s abrupt shelving of Batgirl, a movie I had no plans to ever watch, the gossip mill swore that the platform was going down the toilet. The word on the street was that Warner Bros. Discovery, the service’s newly merged parent company, was going to cancel everything we like and replace them with cheap reality shows. HBO Max would lose all of its good movies, swapped out for bad movies. Fans started mounting pre-emptive campaigns to save upcoming, unreleased content they hadn’t even seen.
It was hard not to be anxious about all of it, since there was some proof in the questionable pudding. After all, a company deciding to pull a mostly finished Batman-adjacent movie from release at the last minute seems like a chaotic move to an outsider. On top of that, people began to notice a smattering of exclusive movies and shows had disappeared from the service with zero notice. By the time Warner Bros. Discovery—or WB Disco, if you want to be cute—set its quarterly earnings call for Thursday, the anxiety had hit a fever pitch.
The thought was that, during the call, all would be revealed. We’d receive an answer for our big question from the corporate higher-ups: WTF was going to happen to HBO Max and all of our favorite shows?
Turns out that the answer isn’t quite as dire as we thought it could be. But it’s also not the most relieving one; instead, Warner Bros. Discovery’s next moves paint a depressing, disappointing picture of the state of the streaming industry right now.
What’s happening to my beloved HBO Max is unsurprising. It will merge with its step-sibling Discovery+, which will include a decluttering of their libraries. This doesn’t yet include any more shocking cancellations, thankfully. Most likely, reducing the content menagerie will mean more cost-cutting measures on WB Disco’s part: letting licenses to certain acquisitions lasp, removing content from streaming, or canceling projects it deems are no longer aligned with the mashed-up brand or tweaked financial guidance.
New goals for both scripted and unscripted programming—a.k.a., less of the former, more of the latter—also make sense: Screw the rules, we want money.
Either way, whatever this future combo streamer will be, it will have a little bit less of what we love about HBO Max. It’s hard to reckon with this, for those of us who subsist on a steady stream of diverse TV and movies to enjoy. The ringer that HBO Max’s reputation went through on the internet this week was nothing if not a distressing, depressing reminder that content is more than entertainment—it’s a product.
What does that actually mean for us consumers of the product? How did we get to this realization? Why was this drama even such a big deal? Allow us to explain.
Things Started to Look Grim for HBO Max
Last month, it looked like HBO was in a great spot. The network collected 140 Primetime Emmy nominations, more than anyone else this year. That tally includes 32 for HBO Max originals, specifically—shows like Hacks and Station Eleven received nods, alongside HBO stalwarts such as Barry, Euphoria, and Succession.
On the backs of that good press lay good buzz for new and upcoming releases. There was a new season of Westworld airing, finally; the direct-to-streaming Father of the Bride remake had scored a big audience; Nathan Fielder’s eagerly anticipated The Rehearsal was on its way, as was a new Game of Thrones show. Even the Pretty Little Liars reboot, of all things, looked like it could be pretty good.
Perhaps most telling are these two tidbits, though: Vulture’s Josef Adalian, who runs the site’s streaming section, ranked HBO Max as the best streaming service of the crop. Its library of old, new, and exclusive content was unmatched, he wrote. Just before that, media analytics company Whip Media released the results of a survey about streaming services, which showed that HBO Max earned the highest rate of satisfaction among all other platforms. (Only 2,500 people were polled, as a caveat. But when nearly everyone polled is satisfied with your service, you’re not gonna complain about it.)
But things were looking a little less happy at home. In April, HBO and HBO Max’s parent company, WarnerMedia, completed a merger with Discovery. Together they became—wait for it—Warner Bros. Discovery. And with the merger came a tightened belt.
I won’t bore you with all the details of the restructuring, integration, strategy, and other incredibly navel-gazing buzzwords. But not long after the Emmy nominations were announced, things started changing. Warner Bros. Discovery announced that TBS, HBO’s messy sister network, would shift away from scripted programming. That resulted in moves like the comedy series Chad getting canceled on the day of its second season premiere; it still hasn’t been rehomed. The channel’s popular late-night series, Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, was axed a few weeks later.
Meanwhile, WB Disco-owned Adult Swim gave up on Joe Pera Talks With You, a show with a dedicated fanbase. The CW (itself renamed after a previous WB merger) announced that its The Flash series would be ending next year, alongside Riverdale; in May, it had canceled Naomi, Batwoman, and Legends of Tomorrow, the latter of which prompted a big fan backlash. HBO Max Originals like Close Enough (my favorite), Made For Love, and Raised By Wolves were all canceled. The company wasn’t totally clearing house—but it was raising eyebrows.
Which brings us to August, when the dumpster hit overflow. In one fell swoop, HBO Max’s Batgirl movie was pulled during post-production. So was the cute-looking Scoob!: Holiday Haunt and the third season of the Little Ellen cartoon, both of which were pretty much ready to go. Previously released, HBO Max-exclusive films like Moonshot, Locked Down, and An American Pickle vanished from the service. Users combed through the catalog to find other movies and series missing, like (the admittedly short-lived) Camping and Vinyl. Warner Bros. Discovery stayed mum on all of this. Instead, it announced that the deeply un-HBO-like Chip and Joanna Gaines would have their various series come to HBO Max later this year.
So Is HBO Max ACTUALLY in Danger?
The question became: What the heck is going on here? With a big merger comes great changes, is what the heck is going on here. But business decisions are guided by logic and finance, not emotion—which is where perception operates. And the perception of all of these changes, many of which happened surreptitiously, has been terrible.
Batgirl has trended all week, with DC fans were frustrated by the loss of a movie that was set to star a Latina Batgirl, a transgender Asian woman as her best friend, and everyone’s fave Brendan Fraser as the villain. Its directors were “saddened and shocked” by the news. Critics mourned the presumed death of HBO Max as the streaming home box office—a place where you could watch a DC movie starring a diverse cast, an episode of The Wire, and a Classic Hollywood film without ever exiting the app.
If Warner Bros. Discovery was willing to dump a $90-million HBO Max movie based on a Batman character, of all things, what else was it willing to kill and bury? The Sex Lives of College Girls? Peacemaker? The Flight Attendant? Elmo’s late-night show?! And that’s not to even get into the theatrical side of things, what with all the problems the DC Universe is mired in over there. Somehow, The Flash is still on the schedule—but what’s going to happen to Black Canary? Or Michael Keaton’s cameo in Aquaman? Will the new Shazam ever actually come out at this point?
There was a ton of conjecture flying around, as is the internet’s wont. There were rumors that HBO Max had lost 70-percent of its original programming staff, which would basically mean no more scripted programming. (This was later reported to be untrue.) The gossip was that the app would collapse into Discovery+ to become a melange of bad reality content and 90 Day Fiancé spin-offs. (Again, that’s not what’s happening, at least at the moment.) The HBO Max subreddit filled up with users threatening to cancel their subscriptions if the company dared to dump even one more thing they liked.
It’s a lot of drama over what ultimately can be boiled down to Capitalism Gonna Capitalism. It costs money to keep shows and movies that almost no one cares about on the service, and it clogs up the feed; you’re lying if you say you’ll miss Mrs. Fletcher or The Witches remake.
But this all chafes against those of us who are upset because HBO was supposed to rise above this “Capitalism Gonna Capitalism” maxim. Since it began, it’s been the rare place where content and art could co-exist. The network indisputably has the strongest back catalog in television. That content attracted people to HBO Max in the first place, alongside exclusive streaming rights of populist faves like South Park, The Big Bang Theory, and Friends.
But there’s a bevy of high-quality exclusives too, and those have really elevated HBO Max. For every Max Original no one even remembers the name of, there’s an Fboy Island, The Other Two, Harley Quinn, Selena + the Chef, and Veneno—all very different, but all good. Nowhere else can you find a dedicated tab for Turner Classic Movies and stream Studio Ghibli movies. And during 2021, you could watch big-budget theatrical releases, like Wonder Woman 1984, Dune, and The Matrix Resurrections, on your couch, due to a one-year promise to drop those movies on HBO Max day-and-date.
Christopher Nolan might have hated that last business decision, along with a bunch of other filmmakers. But all of these moves engendered goodwill among consumers, and HBO Max has ended up a fan favorite only two-ish years after launch.
So all the chatter and freaking out about HBO Max’s future feels, if not warranted, understandable. Yanking already finished content is awful for those who worked on it, and our sympathies should lie with them. Finding out that shows and movies are vanishing with no warning can be anxiety-inducing. Learning that the shows you loved have been killed hurts. Warner Bros. Discovery is a suspicious step-parent so far, and we are within our rights to question them.
We love HBO! We want the best for it! But the home box office hasn’t burned down; it’s not even on fire, really. We can resume watching our shows accordingly—almost all of them, anyway.