In a first for anything HBO-branded, the cable provider will begin offering its content for a lower price, subsidized by advertising, starting the first week of June. Game of Thrones, brought to you by Tide? Advertising is coming.
This new ad-supported tier structure is part of the wider WarnerMedia streaming service HBO Max. We first learned of this tier in March but now know it will cost $10 per month, as opposed to the existing $15/mo rate without advertisements. That $5/mo savings comes from more than advertising, however: WarnerMedia has confirmed that the ad-supported tier will not include “Warner Bros. Same-Day Premiere” films slated to simul-launch in theaters and on HBO Max through the remainder of 2021 (including Dune, The Matrix 4, and The Suicide Squad).
In a Wednesday press release, WarnerMedia describes the new tier as the “lightest ad load among ad-supported streamers.” Exactly how that will play out remains unclear, however, since the announcement’s language is clearly written to entice advertisers, not viewers. The announcement currently includes three examples of HBO Max ads: full-screen advertisements while content is paused; ads placed in the service’s search interface; and “brand blocks,” which appear to let a single advertiser “own a block of content” (presumably with “this episode was brought to you with limited ads by so-and-so” messaging, as opposed to Conan O’Brien’s upcoming, HBO Max-exclusive series having episodes dominated by specific bottles of hot sauce).
Hey, Turtle, that’s a cool [insert brand here] gold chain
All three of those examples offer advertising options that don’t “interrupt” whatever content you’re watching, which would line up with WarnerMedia’s prior assurance that “we will not be having advertising inside of the HBO original series.” In other words, you might see and hear a hard sell for energy drinks or tank tops before and after an episode of Entourage, but not in the middle. HBO’s history with advertising is pretty much limited to successful syndication runs for series like Sex and the City, which were heavily edited to remove nudity and cursing—and condensed to ad-friendly 22-minute episodes.
In the case of HBO Max, today’s press release includes the kind of heartless, corporate-crafted language we might expect its star series Last Week Tonight to eventually skewer: “At a time when brands are looking to create the most impact, HBO Max with Ads will offer an elegant and creative canvas for brands and advertisers to connect with consumers—with the accountability they need to drive outcomes that matter most to their business.” Yes, that’s what’s been missing from HBO Max’s announced path to 120 million subscribers. Brand accountability.
The pricing structure best resembles Hulu’s mix of ad-free and ad-supported tiers, though even that service has WarnerMedia’s prices beat, at $6/mo with ads and $12/mo without. NBC Peacock is bolder with its pricing strategy, thanks to an entirely free, ad-supported tier (which also includes full-screen pause ads), along with a $5/mo “Premium” plan that adds more ad-supported content and a $10/mo “Premium Plus” plan that strips most (but not all) ads.
Yet even at $10/mo, HBO Max’s ad-supported tier is still beaten on a price point by Disney+’s ad-free $8/mo default (which went up $1/mo earlier this year). And anyone who has enjoyed HBO Max subscriptions through paid cable or phone subscription bundles is currently left wondering which tier they’ll get once the new plan emerges, as WarnerMedia didn’t clarify that point in its Wednesday announcement.
This ad-based tier, and its limits on film content, gives HBO Max a path to bring back free-trial offers, which vanished shortly before WarnerMedia began offering day-and-date film launches alongside its theatrical runs. The absence of free-trial offers stopped eager cineastes from watching fare like WW84 and Godzilla vs. Kong for free before bailing without spending a penny. Whether HBO Max will actually bring free trials back is unknown—though that decision will soon be in the hands of a new parent organization, assuming AT&T’s announced spinoff of WarnerMedia meets regulators’ scrutiny.