STREAMING SATURDAY: Will Discovery kill HBO Max?

As of last month, Discovery Networks has taken operational control of all of WarnerMedia. While AT&T still has a stake, it’s Discovery who runs HBO now. And that, frankly, makes me a little nervous.

HBO Max: Not perfect, but this is how you do it

HBO Max was born from two separate but largely identical streaming services. HBO Go was a companion service for those who subscribed to HBO on pay-TV, while HBO Now was pretty much the same thing but you paid for it directly.

When the new app launched, it wasn’t perfect. There were some tech glitches to be sure. If you happened to be an AppleTV subscriber, you got the worst of it. But, the folks at HBO were honest. They said there was a problem and then they got to work solving it. Solve it they did. I’ve had the new version for about a month. The user experience isn’t that different, just different enough that it works better. More importantly, the app doesn’t crash. It doesn’t trap you in a way that makes it impossible to exit. It actually plays video, which frankly was a bit of a problem for the old version.

I can still think of some potential improvements, but it’s plenty usable now and I’m glad of that.

Content was never the problem on HBO Max

HBO Max inherited HBO’s reputation for top-quality content. It’s not all my cup of tea, but unlike Netflix (for example) HBO Max has a brand. It’s about premium stuff, well-done stuff, and lots of original programming that looks like someone put in real effort. That’s how the app sustains its high price without as much complaining as you’d think.

I spend a lot of time on HBO Max and I think it delivers value for the money. Like pretty much everyone else, they brought a lot of first-run content in that would have normally gone to theaters last year. They’ve also curated a lot of older catalog releases that back up that quality reputation.

Discovery+ isn’t the worst, but

Discovery+ is definitely not for everyone, although they try to be. The Discovery brands took a hit in the last ten years as they moved from more science and nature programs to things like Dr. Pimple Popper and other mass-market entertainments. They took over the Scripps empire that includes HGTV and other channels like it, bringing a largely identical stable of thousands of home buying and renovation shows.

As I write this, Discovery+ has a rather annoying problem with its app. Every program launches with captioning turned on, and depending on what you try to do to turn it off, it may get stuck on. I found that the only way to make sure you can turn off the captions is to delete your profile, uninstall the app, make a new profile, and then never use auto captions. What a mess.

The app also launches video without audio about half the time. The audio comes in after about 10 seconds, so I suppose it’s good you have the captions at that point. When the audio does come in, it’s about 8dB louder than pretty much any other app.

It’s these kind of technical glitches that just annoy people to the point where they stop using the app. Discovery has been slow to acknowledge the problem and even slower to deal with it.

A big sloppy firehose of content

Unlike HBO Max’s carefully curated collection, Discovery+ brings practically anything that they’ve ever aired. Points for completeness but since so many shows are copies of each other, it seems a bit pointless nonetheless. It also really breaks Discovery’s recommendation engine. If you watch one episode of House Hunters, it will recommend some of the roughly 5,000 other episodes they have available.

You spend a lot of time wondering whether the world really needs another competition cooking show, let me tell you that. It’s also interesting to see the huge number of true documentaries there, more or less side-by-side with grossout shows and fake drama masquerading as infotainment.

I’m not judging you if this is the stuff you’re into, but let’s not pretend it’s likely to win awards for making the world a better place. We all need a little trainwreck TV now and then, and Discovery+ can bring it to you, no problem.

Which way will it go?

Now, Discovery+ and HBO Max are essentially under the same umbrella. I’m sure the two development teams will merge and as we move forward, we’ll see one technology underpin both apps. Discovery spokespeople have even said that eventually, there will be one app with both sets of content.

So what will it be? A decently-functioning app full of curated, high-quality content, or a messy, buggy player surrounding 27,000 house-hunting shows and 3,650 cooking competitions? (I’m making those numbers up but could they really be that far off?) Will HBO Max’s team set to work fixing Discovery+ or will the app team from Discovery+ let things devolve over at HBO? Your guess is as good as mine.

I know that the flacks at Discovery say there will be one app for both, but I’m not looking forward to it. I think they need to rethink that, honestly. Look at what Disney does. Disney+ is a well-defined brand full of original content and high-quality catalog stuff. Hulu gives you a whole mess of stuff, where some of it is good. ESPN gives you sports, FX gives you original programs and recent movies. You can bundle it all, but it’s a different experience on all of those apps. That’s good, because I wouldn’t want my sports program mingling with my Star Wars.

Cross your fingers

Let’s hope that Discovery’s stewardship of WarnerMedia will be a good one. That company has been passed around several times, and I suspect it will be passed around several more in my lifetime. Hey, at least it’s not still owned by AOL, right? If it was, you’d get HBO Max on floppy disks, know what I mean?

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.