After Carpet Bombing His Way to Better WBD Streaming Economics, Zaslav Effectively Lays Out a Rebuilding Plan With the Rebranded 'Max'

David Zaslav
(Image credit: Warner Bros. Discovery)

As expected, Warner Bros. Discovery said Wednesday that it will call its rebranded flagship streaming product "Max," infuse myriad elements of its Discovery non-fiction empire into it, and launch it on an improved technology platform, with a streamlined AI-powered UX, for what is essentially the same legacy HBO Max pricing model, plus a new $19.99 premium 4K/HDR addition, on May 23.

You can read our full summary of the new 'Max' model here: Warner Bros. Discovery Officially Bows Max, Its Combined Streaming Service

HBO Max users should see, according to WBD plan, their mobile and connected TV apps automatically update to the new service, and their billing and user profiles seamlessly transition.

New tagline: "Max, the one to watch."

"We’re going to drive free cash flow, and we’re going to invest in premium stories," declared WBD CEO David Zalav, summarizing the hour-plus presentation from Warner's famous Stage 14 facility. 

Indeed, while Zaslav and his Discovery team spent a first bloody year after the $43 billion WarnerMedia/Discovery tie-up cutting people and shows, trying to achieve the first economic objective, on Wednesday they tried to convince shareholders, the press and the creative community that they were still plenty capable of achieving the latter content goal. 

In many ways, Wednesday's presentation wasn't all that dissimilar from the one delivered three years ago by Zaslav's predecessor, former WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar, who also played up the vastness and history of the Warner vault as he laid out a kitchen-sink approach to HBO Max's April 12, 2020 launch.

Happy re-birthday? 

After a lot of pruning -- WBD's EBITDA losses on streaming were down more than $500 million in Q4, with Zaslav ditching tons of series and seasons of series -- the company tried to convince everyone that it can start building Max back up in a more cost-efficient way. 

Objectively speaking, it was effective messaging. 

No, HBO Isn't Getting Whacked 

While the HBO name is being ripped out of the branding for the conglomerate's flagship streaming service, WBD streaming and games chief JB Perrette made the strong case that the HBO brand is better served being plied to just HBO content, and not spread to the "breaking point" as the moniker of a broad-reaching SVOD service that includes things like Looney Toons shorts. 

(Left unsaid: WBD brass also reportedly wanted to open up "Max" to consumers who might be turned off by what they see as a "coastal elite" HBO brand.) 

Also read: Panic Grips the Video Business! -- Are the 'Shark Week' Guys Really About to Blow Up HBO Max?

Meanwhile, over the course of the presentation, HBO Max CEO Casey Bloys made an equally compelling argument that "HBO remains HBO," showcasing numerous upcoming shows that seem, at least in terms of sizzle reel demonstration, fully capable of upholding the powerful HBO water-cooler brand. 

Some examples:


From Succession writer Will Tracy and starring Kate Winslet, The Regime tells the story of a modern European dictatorship starting to unravel. 


Executive produced and co-starring Robert Downey Jr., and with acclaimed Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook (Snowpiercer, Oldboy) serving as co-showrunner, The Sympathizer is a Vietnam War-era spy thriller that delves deep into the bowels of the Vietcong. 


As promised by Zaslav, Warner's reconfigured Max will more stridently exploit the output of WBD's DC Comics division. But the production values conveyed in the company's sizzle reel Wednesday, not to mention the star power (Colin Farrell in the villainous title role), suggests something worthy of the HBO brand. 

Meanwhile, Bloys didn't have reels for what may have been HBO's most anticipated new offerings: a new Game of Thrones prequel series, The Knight of the Seven Kingdoms: The Hedge Knight, and a new series version of Harry Potter, produced by JK Rowling herself, that will track all seven of the source novels and unfurl over the next 10 years. 

Adding Disco

Having telegraphed plans to combine HBO Max and Discovery Plus six months ago, Zaslav's team has faced skepticism as to how "Fixer Upper"-themed reality shows will fit with the premium HBO content brand. 

Again, WBD's sizzle reels for upcoming shows seemed to be on point, showcasing projects that look and feel like they could reasonably exist in the same universe. 

More examples:


Podcast mates Jason Bateman, Sean Hayes and Will Arnett ply their increasingly popular audio act to video, while visiting a slew of major American cities. 

In addition to the SmartLess podcast adaptation, WBD content chief Kathleen Finch referenced two new comedy series from Chuck Lorre, including yet another Big Bang Theory spin-off, a series adaptation of The Conjuring, and a Stephen Spielberg-produced animated adaptation of 1980s comedic horror classic Gremlins

Finally, among other considerable shade thrown Zaslav's way recently has been criticism that Max won't be able to cut its losses and continue to grow scale simultaneously. 

To close Wednesday's ceremony, Perrette returned to the stage, making the case -- again, quite effectively -- that an improved UX and overall experience should improve subscriber retention and signups, particularly given there will be more content and no increased monthly price. 

Max will add AI-driven search-and-recommendation features (HBO Max has been bereft of this stuff), suggesting shows to users once they complete a series or movie. Content navigation menus will be revised, and genre hubs will be created, as will a feature that lets users save content selections for later. 

Overall, Perrette said that three-fourths of HBO Max viewing comes only from the home screen. With Discovery Plus, viewership has tended to come from "deeper in the app," and WBD will try to ply those learnings to Max.

Further, he noted that HBO Max has been "limited" in the way it "proactively manages" accounts. For example, if a customer's credit card expires, it's very easy for them to get dropped from the service. 

The new software will include more in-app customer notifications and payment flexibility, he said, enabling new payment methods including PayPal. 

In summation, Zaslav has spent most of his previous WBD speaking events telling us how the prior Warner regime spent too much on stuff we don't want to watch anyway, and that it was going away. 

This presentation felt quite a bit more accretive, while adding some coherence to a broader business strategy that is now being emulated by most of WBD's rivals. 

But as our correspondent David Bloom wrote two weeks ago, Zaslav and his team have done a lot of cutting back to WBD's various creative engines -- almost like a Major League Baseball team balancing its high-priced payroll by cutting corners on its farm team. 

Will 20-game winners like The Last of Us continue to emerge from the development ranks for HBO?

WBD's presentation Wednesday at least put a nice facade on things, re-establishing, as Bloys put it, that "HBO is still HBO," and the Warner still has ambitions to grow streaming scale with a broad-skewing SVOD service ... at least for now. 

Daniel Frankel

Daniel Frankel is the managing editor of Next TV, an internet publishing vertical focused on the business of video streaming. A Los Angeles-based writer and editor who has covered the media and technology industries for more than two decades, Daniel has worked on staff for publications including E! Online, Electronic Media, Mediaweek, Variety, paidContent and GigaOm. You can start living a healthier life with greater wealth and prosperity by following Daniel on Twitter today!