As Disney has girded for battle with Netflix over the past few months, WarnerMedia has often been on the streaming sidelines, asking people not forget about it and its planned service HBO Max.
On Tuesday, the A&T-owned company finally got its moment in the light, announcing a dizzying array of programming that nonetheless raises questions about whether it's all enough. The moves offer a window into whether a company with a lower consumer profile but a deep content well can still win at a streaming game where branding is king.
WarnerMedia announced that the new service will cost $14.99 a month.
"The entire HBO service bundled together with larger new offering of original content plus a choice slate of acquired library programming," proclaimed Robert Greenblatt, chairman of Warner Media Entertainment and Direct-to-Consumer, in a presentation from the Warner Bros. studio lot in Burbank, California, before introducing a wide range of creators and show teasers.
The new service will launch in May 2020, Greenblatt said It will indeed contain all shows available on HBO in addition to, well, a lot of other programs.
After making a number of executive moves earlier in the year under new owner AT&T, Warner Media in recent months has been releasing a torrent of content announcements. On Tuesday the firm continued the onslaught.
Most notable was that "South Park," the long-running hit on Viacom's Comedy Central, would get a new "streaming home" at HBO Max. Episodes for the next three seasons will premiere on the service 24 hours after they air on regular TV. All 23 past seasons also will be available on demand.
"That's pretty cool," HBO Max chief content officer Kevin Reilly said succinctly.
The deal is possible because Viacom does not have a robust consumer streaming-service in the way of other conglomerates.
The "South Park" news led a long list of additions Tuesday that also included development projects from the likes of Mindy Kaling and Issa Rae; a "Green Lantern" series "in space" from in-house blue-chip producer Greg Berlanti. and the availability of library shows like the first three seasons of "Rick & Morty," which has long been in the Warner Media family. Other announcements were expected to unfold throughout the presentation.
The offerings come in the wake of other deals announced steadily over the past few months. They include a return of the niche hit "Boondocks;" a wide range of documentary series; a number of shows from J.J. Abrams' production company; all 21 of famed Japanese animation company Studio Ghibli's animated features movies; a TV spinoff of "Grease," a rvival of "Gossip Girl;" and library hits such as "Friends" and "The Big Bang Theory."
In part, the announcements reflect the nature of the streaming wars, in which the race is on to amass as many weapons as possible, without even knowing how they'll fire or whom they'll target. Some of the new shows seem aimed specific competitors - the standup specials were a retort to Netflix, while the family series are a broadside to Disney - but many eschew specific strategy in favor of a general more-is-more approach.
The deals also are a way of keeping the company in consumer consciousness. At a moment when Disney and Apple TV+ are marketing heavily - the traditional broadcast airwaves have been flooded with spots in the hope of converting those viewers - WarnerMedia wants to ensure that it is not forgotten in the tumult.
But there is little way to know whether simply creating a wide array of shows - even if a number of them turn out to be hits - will bring in a lot of subscribers.
"A few great shows isn't what makes a streamer successful - it has to scale," said Dan Rayburn, an expert on streaming. "It also has to be simple and easy to use. And we've not seen anything yet from AT&T that demonstrates either of these things is true."
It remains hard to know how much of this is additional content as opposed to simply content ported over; many of the deals in the pre-streaming age might have found a home on TBS or TNT. Reilly long oversaw those networks. A key question remains unanswered about HBO Max: Is it going to be much of the same under a new marketing package or a discrete programming operation.
While a number of properties, from "Joker" to "Sesame Street," are high profile, it also remains to be seen whether they're enough to compete with the megaliths Disney will regularly roll out.
On Tuesday, nonetheless Warner Media sought to make the case it could hold its own with content heavyweights.
Greenblatt touted AT&T's reach as one reason it could.
"When you live in a world of dragons, like Netflix, Amazon and Apple, it feels very good to have one of yours in the game," said Greenblatt, the former NBC and Showtime executive, who was hired by WarnerMedia earlier in the year
"We simply couldn't do this without a company of this scale behind us," he added. WarnerMedia chief executive John Stankey, a former AT&T executive, also appeared at the presentation to tout the company's reach.
The executives also took a few veiled digs at the competition.
Greenblatt said HBO Max will "remove a lot of the filler no one watches anyway" and "never rely on algorithms to serve our customers the best programming," both clear references to Netflix.
Reilly said that HBO Max will have "the largest selection of recent blockbusters available on any streamer," a claim Disney might contest.
The service's goal has been different from those of competitors. Unlike other firms, WarnerMedia doesn't have to persuade consumers to pay directly for content - they've already been doing that for HBO.
What the company needs to do is expand beyond the prestige realms of the pay-cable network, whose roughly 30 million consumers pale compared to Netflix, to Disney's potential base and to the mass-entertainment direction streaming is believed to be going.
In short, the issue is whether a company that has been very good at getting hard-core TV fans to pay them directly every month can get a lot of other people to do the same.
"The question for HBO is can they take their direct relationship with their consumers and leverage that into something more like Netflix," said Raj Venkatesan, a professor of business administration at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business who closely follows streaming. "A lot of consumers don't have a relationship with HBO,"
The matter is further complicated, he said, because the brand is seen as more prestige than populist.
The larger play for AT&T also remains different - and in question. Netflix is driven by subscription revenue, Apple is trying to boost device sales and app usages. Disney wants to push merchandising and other products.
AT&T wants content to help persuade people to keep subscribing to its phone services.
"The business model is totally different - they're trying to make sure subscribers don't churn out of wireless," Rayburn said. "And we've not yet seen evidence a streaming service will do that."