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News media was abuzz this week after it was announced that HBO Max is removing nearly 70 titles ahead of its merger with Discovery+. As HBO Max and Discovery+ move toward merging, it’s clear that some slimming of content is underway as Discovery (which now owns both) is looking to cut costs.
What’s going on with HBO Max?
HBO Max launched in May 2020 as the successor to HBO Now. WarnerMedia intended the new HBO Max service to be a catch-all for both its popular and well-received HBO content (like Game of Thrones) and its Warner Brothers branded content, like TKTK.
The service quickly took off, thanks in no small part to HBO’s already extensive library of hits. The service had 10,000 hours of streaming content at launch.
so…hbo max has fallen angels, chungking express AND in the mood for love….THIS IS WHY HBO MAX IS THE BEST
— jíssele (@dazedcillian) May 8, 2022
When Discovery bought WarnerMedia from AT&T, it got the whole shebang, including HBO. But it spent $43 billion on the purchase, which isn’t cheap by any stretch of the imagination. Discovery, Inc. only generated a revenue of $10 billion in 2020, meaning its WarnerMedia purchase was about 4x its annual revenue from 2020.
Cost cutting is just a natural consequence of such a big spend. But will it be worth it?
Shows cut from HBO Max are actually pretty small ones …
Quite obviously, the shows getting cut from HBO Max (and likely some of the Discovery content in the future) are fairly small. These include some originals like Ellen’s Next Great Designer, some Cartoon Network shows like Mighty Magiswords, and some licensed, including Pac-Man and the Might Swords.
Streaming services like HBO Max will regularly cut shows that aren’t performing well. Finding the viewership data can be a challenge, as not all services are forthcoming. However, take Might Magiswords, for example. By the time it finished its last season in 2019, its viewership was down to 180,000 people. The series launched in 2016 getting well over a million. It’s likely that HBO/Discovery were looking at similar numbers across the content it dropped.
Now compare that to shows it’s kept, like Game of Thrones. Average viewership for that series was never below 2 million, and by Season 8 was over 10 million for each episode. Simply put, some content, like GoT, has been driving revenue while others weren’t driving enough subscriptions to make sense from a business perspective.
… but that’s still hard for the shows’ creators
Julia Pott, the creator of Summer Camp Island, an HBO Max original cartoon, probably put it into the best perspective in a tweet:
We worked for 5 years to make 100 episodes of animation. We worked late into the night, we let ourselves go, we were a family of hard working artists who wanted to make something beautiful, and HBO MAX just pulled them all like we were nothing. Animation is not nothing!
— Julia Pott (@juliapott) August 18, 2022
This is a consequence of digital-only content that needs to be better addressed. When content is digital-only, it creates a situation of potential impermanence. Ownership is not tangible, apparently not even for the creators. And since digital downloads are also usually time-limited, if services choose to just delete content from existence, well, it’s effectively gone for good.
Some content may just move, not disappear
There’s a glimmer of hope here. Not all content that’s getting dropped is completely disappearing forever. Some of that content may eventually move to other services and be available to stream in other locations.
Summer Camp Island (the one mentioned just above) is a perfect example. Only a day after her original tweet lamenting the sudden loss of her show, Pott reported happily that Cartoon Network not only agreed to continue airing Summer Camp Island, it also agreed to add new episodes.
Cartoon Network thank you for advocating for us, and seeing the value in our show. I hope other creators get the same kind of support from their distribution partners. pic.twitter.com/DBK97cWCos
— Julia Pott (@juliapott) August 18, 2022
What’s more, subscribers can look forward to watching Discovery+ on Sling TV based on a new deal reported by Sling. Although it’s unclear what that will look like, Discovery+ will exist as a separate add-on service on Sling TV, and it may include some of the content that gets dropped from the merged HBO Max/Discovery+ streaming service.
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Our take: streaming may face an existential crisis
In years past, when all content was on physical media, it was impossible to completely get rid of TV shows or movies. Even if a DVD or VHS was rare, it likely still existed somewhere if you looked hard enough.
But in our digital age, content ownership has effectively disappeared. Digital-only streamers rarely put their content on physical media for sale. That means, unless you resort to illegally downloading content, you have no assurances that you can watch that content ever again if the streamer decides to just delete it all.
For both content creators who want people to enjoy their shows and viewers, this effectively means the end of content ownership as we know it. And that’s something that should concern us all.
Sam Cook is a full-time content strategist by day, a part-time freelance content writer since 2015. In another life, he was a high school English teacher for nearly a decade. Based in sunny New Orleans, he writes long-form educational content on technology, including Insurtech, Fintech, HRtech, and content streaming. He loves whittling down complex ideas within these areas that make decisions easier for buyers. When he’s not reading books with his son Miles and playing video games with the family, you can find him immersed in his growing collection of Euro-style board games.