HBO and Max: A template for Paramount under Warner Bros. Discovery (01 January 2023 - 31 December 2023)

8 January, 2024

Image: Scavengers Reign, Max

With Warner Bros. Discovery potentially looking to acquire Paramount, questions have been raised over whether content quality and diversity would suffer under their leadership. Given that the merging of Discovery’s content with Warner Bros. has altered the conglomerate’s decisions in the past, the assumption is the same will happen with Paramount’s library of content.

To this end, it’s worth looking at a platform that has been affected by WBD’s direction in the past: HBO and, more specifically, Max. This article will examine trends across in-demand shows on HBO and Max for the past year to see how their content has been shaped by WBD’s leadership.

HBO’s network programming remains independent of oversight


HBO continues to put out a diverse array of critically-acclaimed shows under WBD’s direction. Since the AT&T acquisition of Time Warner in 2016, shows such as BarrySuccession and The White Lotus have all premiered and proven their longevity with rave reviews. These shows also feature HBO’s trademark tact for tackling dark subject matter through an often comic lens, as seen in The SopranosThe Wire and Oz.

It’s too soon to tell if this type of content is still being produced post WBD merger in April of 2022. What is clear is the types of content viewers are engaging with on HBO. The two big hitters for HBO that premiered in this period have been The Last of Us and House of the Dragon, drawing in 65.7 and 51.3 times the average demand for a series worldwide respectively. The shows are a departure from HBO’s typical original real-world dramas, both being based on hugely successful IP with fantasy settings.


But looking for original IP in a real-world setting turns up a less dazzling array of shows in regards to demand. The Idol leaned on its pop star cast (The Weeknd, Troye Sivan) to raise 9.6 times the average demand for a series worldwide, but was overwhelmingly criticized for its “thin plot and incoherent narrative” in favour of eroticism and nihilistic mystique. White House Plumbers feels most tonally aligned with HBO’s previous offerings, taking a farcical jab at the Watergate scandal. One excellent series that flew under the radar is Irma Vep, a meta-within-meta examination of prestige TV and content creation. The show updates HBO’s classic polished, satirical tone with modern Gen Z absurdist sensibilities. Despite this, Irma Vep only commanded 3.5 times the average demand for a series worldwide.

Though the demand for these series is lacking, they make one thing clear: HBO is still putting out shows with diverse creators and casts, and still producing dramas with a satirical bite.

Max shifts towards kids and families under WBD’s leadership


However, the situation looks a little different for Max’s OTT originals. Instead of hard-hitting dramas and boundary-pushing comedy, Max seems to aim at a younger, casual audience with superhero shows and well-known IP. The superhero genre remained popular throughout 2023, with Max producing a bevy of DC superhero shows including Titans, Peacemaker, Doom Patrol and Young Justice. These newer superhero shows draw in a majority male audience, while tent-pole IP dramas draw in a female audience to the service, including reunion specials (Friends Reunion, Harry Potter Reunion) and reboots (And Just Like That…, Gossip Girl).

One more interesting area of expansion on Max is animation: Half of the platform’s top 10 original series are animated, while the streamer is leveraging its access to Adult Swim for adult animation like Rick and Morty. Most original animation on the platform is based on pre-existing IP such as the aforementioned Young Justice and spin-offs of popular series including Velma, Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai and Adventure Time: Fionna and Cake. The focus on pre-existing IP may be a concession to the fact that animation has never been HBO’s primary draw card. Max has taken one big swing at a new animated series: Scavengers Reign. The sci-fi series has earned critical and fan praise for its in-depth world-building and creature design, garnering 11.1 times the average demand for a series worldwide. 

WBD is looking to retain the family market with Max


This focus on animation seems to fly in the face of speculation around Max in 2022. One of the biggest recent shifts in Max’s catalogue was the removal of a number of kid and family focused programs, including The Not-Too-Late Show with Elmo and Yabba Dabba DinosaursPundits speculated these removals were a move by Max to cede the kid and family demographic to better-equipped competitors.

However, this is contradicted by JB Perrette, president and CEO of WBD’s global streaming and games: “We want [Max] to be welcoming to all and easily recognizable, including to a key customer segment, kids and families”. Given HBO’s reputation for hard-hitting drama, it’s understandable that removing the HBO label opens Max up to a younger audience. This mission statement makes animation all the more valuable to WBD going forward.

Paramount may consolidate WBD’s grip on animation


Given the success of animation on Max then, it stands to reason WBD may want to bolster its animation portfolio. A merger with Paramount would be the straightest line towards this goal, adding the 7.8% animated series demand share of Paramount+ to that of Max’s 12.1% demand share in the US. This is largely thanks to one key property: Nickelodeon. From the 90’s onwards, Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network have been the twin pillars of American TV animation. Buying Paramount would pull the two under one banner, picking the best kid-friendly content from Nickelodeon (Spongebob SquarepantsPaw Patrol) and putting it alongside Cartoon Network’s most famous series (Adventure TimeScooby Doo). Not to mention strengthening its grip on the adult animation market with South Park (owned by Paramount via Comedy Central).

This is a double-edged sword for consumers. On the negative side, less competition normally means a hike up in subscription fees and more milquetoast projects without rival companies to one-up. However, with the globalisation of content, there are plenty of competitors outside traditional US channels that may drive innovative shows. Most prominently, these include anime such as Jujutsu Kaisen (with 70.2 times the average demand for a series worldwide) and web-based animation such as The Amazing Digital Circus.

There are also many pros to a WBD-Paramount merger for animation fans. If WBD is focusing on animation with Max, that means more money invested into new shows. While that means existing IP at the moment, proven success with animation might lead to more experimentation to develop new IP. Additionally for older fans of animation, having these massive properties together would enable crossovers that at one time seemed impossible: Spongebob meeting Bugs Bunny, as an example.

Zooming back out, it’s clear that Max had significant changes to its programming under WBD. However, these changes were made to individuate the platform and hit demographics that weren’t being hit by HBO or its other subsidiaries. Therefore, even in the case of a WBD - Paramount merger, Paramount’s content may not be erased, but redistributed instead. And ultimately, that means one less subscription to pay for TV viewers.

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