In the end, it still all comes down to Friends. Nearly a year ago, WarnerMedia clinched the rights to the 1990s sitcom in a deal reportedly worth $425 million. The plan at the time was to nab the show from Netflix, where it had amassed legions of new fans, and bring it to WarnerMedia’s new streaming service, HBO Max. Suffice it to say, a lot has happened since then.
Friends officially left Netflix at the beginning of 2020, and a little more than two months later the coronavirus pandemic hit, claiming thousands and thousands of lives, costing millions their jobs, and forcing millions of others to stay inside for safety. In the months since, Friends has been one of the most watched shows in America, despite the fact that it’s not freely available on any major streaming service. With the launch of HBO Max today, that’s changing.
As you’ve likely surmised, this couldn’t be coming at a better time. Although some states are easing their Covid-19-related stay-at-home orders, many people are still staying put, scrolling and browsing for TV shows and movies to watch. This might explain why anyone launching the new HBO Max and searching for Friends might see a small tag that reads “The wait is over.” It also may be the worst time to launch a streaming service. Unemployment in the US is at nearly 15 percent, and adding another monthly expense, especially one that costs $15 per month, may seem extravagant. Not to mention that the last streaming media service to launch—the mobile-only venture Quibi—has struggled to gain traction, something cofounder Jeffrey Katzenberg blamed squarely on the coronavirus in an interview with The New York Times. What’s more, another streaming service, NBCUniversal’s Peacock, is scheduled to go live on July 15.
Which brings us to the other hurdle HBO Max now faces: market saturation. Generally speaking, American households have accepted that they’ll need two or three streaming services to be able to watch what they want to watch, but at some point all of them have to do a cost-benefit analysis. All told, HBO Max—which combines a wide variety of assets owned by WarnerMedia, from Warner Bros. films and the Criterion Collection to, yes, HBO—has about 10,000 hours of content. That’s indeed larger than the roughly 3,300 hours of content on Disney+, but is a pittance next to Netflix’s 36,000 or Amazon’s 63,500 hours.
HBO Max, though, does have a toehold here—lots of folks are already HBO cable subscribers (and HBO Go users) or have HBO Now subscriptions. These customers now have access to HBO Max and will likely spread the word, and Sarah Lyons, WarnerMedia’s head of product experience, notes that customer sentiment indicates families want more things to watch together. “There were many, many discussions on ‘Is this the right time? Should we wait? Should we stay on track? Are users going to think we’re taking advantage of them, or are they going to be happy about us giving them additional content to watch?’” she says. “We decided to stay the course.”