“Our main priority right now is launching an integrated SVOD service,” CEO David Zaslav said on the earnings call for the June quarter.
The plan to combine the two services has long been in the works as a key part of the deal to combine the former WarnerMedia and Discovery, which closed in April. The combined service, which will have both “ad-light” and ad-free versions, similar to HBO Max’s current plans, will launch first in the U.S. in summer 2023, Latin America later that year, and European markets that currently have HBO Max in early 2024. It will launch in additional markets in Asia and Europe later that year, and will be available in over 70 countries by 2025. But that plan doesn’t include large key markets including the U.K., Germany, and Italy.
While Zaslav called HBO one of his company’s “crown jewels,” he said he hasn’t yet decided whether the combined service will bear the HBO name. He said data has shown an increasingly favorable consumer impression of HBO Max as a go-to, quality content, which is one factor his team will consider when determining the service’s name.
The service will combine the best aspects of Warner Bros. Discovery’s current services to put the company in a more competitive position, executives said. HBO Max has great content that drives appointment viewing — which helps with subscriber acquisition — while the Discovery+ reality portfolio is made for comfort viewing, which helps mitigate churn — the archenemy of any streaming service.
HBO Max has better features, but it’s been plagued by technology issues. Discovery+’s app is highly rated by consumers, but has limited features, said WBD’s CEO and president of global streaming and games JB Perrette. The company will rely on the solid tech underpinnings of Discovery+ to create a better consumer experience.
“We think that product will be superb. It’s about curation, it’s about quality, it’s about how good. The center spoke of that is the quality of HBO Max,” Zaslav said.
The company expects 130 million global subscribers for the combined service by 2025. It reported Thursday 92 million subscribers across HBO Max and Discovery+, up 1.7 million compared to the first quarter. Of those, an estimated 4 million people subscribe to both. This quarter marked the first that the company has restructured the way it reports subscribers; it no longer includes some free subscribers, AT&T subscribers who have not activated HBO Max, or subscribers of other minor services. It did not reveal discrete subscriber numbers for the two flagship services.
At the end of the previous quarter, WarnerMedia’s HBO and HBO Max — still owned by AT&T — had a combined 76.8 million subscribers. The Discovery, Inc. portfolio had 24 million; most of those were Discovery+.
Executives pointed to two announcements made earlier today as a path to the services’ eventual combination: CNN Originals, including Anthony Bourdain content, will head to Discovery+ on August 19. In the fall, home improvement shows from Magnolia Network will launch on HBO Max.
Keeping with Zaslav’s preference for restrained spending and “not chasing every sub,” Warner Bros. Discovery isn’t betting everything on streaming.
“In recent years, a strategy has emerged to suggest the video business will be better off collapsing all windows into streaming and overpaying for and over-investing in content and offering it all at the same time for a low price,” Perrette said.
That means fewer direct-t0-streaming movies and no expensive ones, which explains the decision to axe “Batgirl” and “Scoob! Holiday Haunt” announced earlier this week. “We will fully embrace theatrical,” Zaslav said on the call. “We believe it creates interest and demand, provides a great marketing tailwind, and generates word of mouth buzz as films transition to streaming and beyond.”
Additionally, Zaslav said the company is exploring launching another streaming service.
“Once our SVOD service is firmly established in the market, we see real potential and are exploring the opportunity for a FAST — or free, ad-supported streaming offering,” he said.
FAST has emerged as a focus area for several media conglomerates, partially Paramount Global, which has positioned its Pluto TV as a way to sell ads, reach consumers averse to spending money on a subscriptions, and drive new subscribers to the paid Paramount+.
Zaslav said Warner Bros. Discovery is weighing whether to use its massive library to feed that free service or license it to others. He promised more details about that at Warner Bros. Discovery’s investor day at the end of the year, while more details about the HBO Max/Discovery+ replacement will be revealed “closer to launch.”