With Warner Bros Discovery (WBD) having yesterday confirmed what everyone expected, that the new combined HBO-Max/Discovery+ streaming offer will now be called simply “Max“, I have a few questions about what true global ambitions WBD has for the service.
To date, HBO Max has only been available in a relatively narrow list of countries. Having launched in the US in 2020, it expanded into Latin America and the Caribbean in 2021. Later it expanded into Spain, Portugal, most of the Nordic countries and Central and Eastern European countries in 2022.
But it’s not available in the UK, and nor is it available in other major English-language markets like Australia.
In the UK, the now Comcast-owned Sky has had an exclusive output deal with HBO for a number of years, and means that channels like Sky Atlantic, Sky Comedy and Sky Documentaries have been home to HBO programming in the UK. That deal has been extended a couple of times over the years, and the current output agreement runs until 2025.
At that point, WBD could take back HBO programming and be in a position to launch
HBO Max in the UK. And I have long thought that this is the likely outcome. Indeed former WarnerMedia boss Jason Kilar said as much back in early 2021.
The Sky deal, which extends to the UK, Germany and Italy, isn’t the only output deal HBO has had. It also had a similar deal with Foxtel in Australia.
The general view had been that trying to launch a new streaming service whilst you’ve licenced off your premium programming to someone else is something of a fool’s errand.
Then last month, Foxtel agreed an extension of this deal, in a “multi-year” agreement that allows Foxtel and its own streaming service BINGE access to a wide array of WBD programming. Indeed, it would seem to offer a broader array of programmes than Sky’s deal with WBD has including all their Max Original shows which in the UK at least, have instead been licenced to a range of Sky and non-Sky partners.
This Foxtel agreement would seem to completely close the door on WBD launching Max in Australia anytime soon.
Separately, WBD has also renewed a Japanese output deal it with local streamer U-Next. The existing deal had run for the last two years, and that deal was extended last month.
Again, you would strongly suspect that Japan is not going to see a local version of Max launching anytime soon either.
So what is the plan?
WBD is sitting on a treasure trove of programming that remains highly regarded and strongly valued globally. Under CEO David Zaslav, who was front and centre with his plans for Max yesterday, they seem to be taking a significantly more cautious view on rolling out the service globally.
You would think that the Sky deal will be the next to watch closely. Although it has around 18 months or so to run (I confess that I don’t know exactly when in 2025 it expires), losing the rights to HBO programming would be a significant hit to the value offering of the services. I would note though, that there are some co-productions between Sky and HBO, so series like Chernobyl would probably remain with Sky regardless of any deal.
How the Sky deal plays out may depend at least in part on what happens with WBD itself. The WarnerMedia merger with Discovery was structured using something called a Reverse Morris Trust transaction which limited tax liability. (I’m not an expert in this area – it’s partly why I subscribe to things like Puck). But because of the way WBD came into being, it’s essentially off the table until 2024 at which time a company like Comcast might come along and be very interested in it.
With Comcast already owning Sky, you could envisage a single Max offering swallowing up NBC and Peacock in the US as well as Sky in Europe. Obviously there would be some competition hurdles to overcome for this to happen since you’d potentially end up with Warner Brothers and Universal Films under the same umbrella, as well as Sky News and CNN, and BT Sport/TNT, Eurosport and Sky Sports.
And I guess we need to throw into the mix what happens with Hulu which is currently co-owned by Disney and Comcast and who’s future is much under discussion. Does Disney buy-out Comcast? Or vice versa? Or neither?