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

Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav
Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav wants you to go retrieve his Tesla, shut up and enjoy an episode of 'Property Brothers.' (Image credit: Getty Images)

It was hard for many of us to accept that Jason Kilar was forced out of his job earlier this year, for reasons of yet more "strategic" AT&T transactional chaos, after growing the global HBO subscriber base to nearly 80 million and developing a content slate worthy of an industry-leading 140 Emmy nominations

Still, no one in their right mind thought that when Discovery chief David Zaslav and his executive team came out on top in the $43 billion merger of WarnerMedia and Discovery it would be the non-fiction pantheon of "Shark Week" and Property Brothers that would triumph over the legendary scripted cathedral built by The Sopranos and Game of Thrones

Also read: Cosmic Injustice Alert: Jason Kilar Got WarnerMedia Revved Up … Only to Get Kneecapped By John Stankey?

And as the recently rechristened Warner Bros. Discovery, under Zaslav's watch, gets ready to issue its first-ever second-quarter earnings report on Thursday afternoon, video industry pundits on Twitter -- some credible! -- have been busy fear-mongering radical retrenchments for HBO back to a pre-2020, pre-Max, cable-only vision that perhaps only a key WBD mogul stakeholder like John Malone and a few conservative Supreme Court Justices might appreciate. 

One beloved online trade pub reported Wednesday that most of the non-scripted development infrastructure built by Kilar for HBO Max will be pared back, with the scant remains of HBO creative activity placed onto the thin bones of a skeleton crew led by the recently retained Casey Bloys

Other Twitter pundits, also basing their breathless breaks on anonymous sourcing, reported that the name HBO Max will go away 27 months after its difficult but ultimately successful birth. 

(Image credit: Twitter)

There is some semblance of stridency here. 

It was widely and credibly reported on Tuesday that WBD terminated several straight-to-HBO Max film projects, including DC Comics-based BatGirl, a $90- film that was in post production and nearly completed.

Highly leveraged following the merger, Zaslav and his WBD management team are aggressively cutting positions, optimizing tax liability and doing anything they can to create $3 billion in savings.

Variety also reported that WBD quietly pulled six films created just for the HBO Max platform.

Many have suggested that it's even kind of personal -- Zaslav is trying to unravel all remembrances of Kilar's rather productive two-year legacy.

Certainly, there have been instances in which WBD management has pulled back on initiatives carried out by Kilar that were expensive and hard to complete, but completed nonetheless. The abrupt scuttling of CNN Plus just weeks after launch comes to mind.

There's also that reversal of a painful decision to pull HBO Max out of the Amazon Prime Video Channels marketplace. Executing on that plan hurt HBO subscriber growth in several profound ways, costing it millions of subscribers over time.

But Zaslav and his team are reportedly putting the company's SVOD service, however it is ultimately combined, re-created and remonikered, back in Channels.

Does this mean what some Twitter Cassandras think it means? Will WBD really make an extreme retrograde decision and pull back HBO into pay TV premium channel-only status, while relegating a hollowed-out HBO Max to a tab-only role on a rebranded but largely Discovery Plus-driven subscription platform?

On Wednesday, there was a smarter, perhaps a little too-cool-for-school portion of the TV journalist Twitterverse that rightly suggested we all hold our powder: none of these radical steps WBD is rumored to be announcing Thursday has even been close to remotely confirmed. 

(Image credit: Twitter)

Then again, we're living in an era in which the broader fears associated with drastic regime change have come to absolute worse-than-even-imagined fruition. Some times ego and id triumph over success. 

And just because the grand HBO experiment survived three glorious decades of greatness, safely transitioning from Chris Albrecht to Richard Plepler to Kilar ... doesn't mean the autocratic rule of Zaslav won't bring this baby to an inglorious halt.

Put it another way — Malone and Zaslav probably know that reorienting CNN's coverage into a more centrist vision isn't necessarily something TMT punditry living in New York and Los Angeles want to hear about. But in their minds, we'll get over it. We just may not be the market they care about.  

Certainly, there were plenty of widely read, credible folks on Wednesday who seriously postulated on widely unpopular change to a beloved consumer product, changes many of us dedicated users won't like. ■

(Image credit: Twitter)
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!