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HBO Max’s global expansion faces intense competition and tangled rights

A man speaks onstage in front of the HBO Max logo
Tony Goncalves, chief executive of Otter Media, speaks at a 2019 event in Burbank.
(Presley Ann / Getty Images)

From his home in the English port city of Sunderland, John Campbell reads everything he can about HBO Max. When theaters across the U.K. shut down because of the pandemic, Campbell got excited about potentially being able to see new movies on the streaming service.

But like everyone else in the U.K., Campbell will have to wait for his chance to sign up, possibly for several years. HBO Max may not arrive in some of Europe’s largest markets, including the U.K., Germany and Italy, until 2025, when an exclusive deal between HBO and the European pay-TV provider Sky expires.

Campbell, a 27-year-old TV cord-cutter, predicts the delay could push people to pirate HBO Max programming illegally or lose interest altogether. “It’s shocking for anyone wanting new exclusive content,” he said.

The deal with Sky is an example of the tangled international rights that HBO Max is navigating as it tries to catch up with Netflix and Disney+ around the world. The Sky agreement has been lucrative for its parent, WarnerMedia. But analysts say it threatens to slow down HBO Max in a fast-moving global race for streaming domination.

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“A few years might be a dangerously long amount of time in the future given the pace at which other streaming services are continuing to grow,” said Brian Wieser, global president of business intelligence at the advertising giant GroupM.

HBO Max made its debut in the U.S. last May. After a tumultuous start, the streaming service gained traction late last year when its app arrived on Roku and Amazon Fire TV devices, and it started showing Warner Bros. movies such as “Wonder Woman 1984” the same day they arrived in theaters. With 64 million worldwide subscribers to HBO and HBO Max, WarnerMedia still has a long way to go to catch up with the industry’s leaders. Netflix has over 200 million global subscribers. Disney+ has more than 100 million.

Success in streaming, as Netflix has shown, ultimately requires reaching subscribers in every corner of the planet. But taking a streaming service around the world is complicated and expensive. It involves creating locally-sourced shows in multiple languages and navigating regions that don’t have reliable broadband or many consumers with credit cards. For HBO Max, it also means deciding when is the right time to give up revenue from licensing deals.

HBO Max’s global strategy could be totally upended a year from now when its parent, WarnerMedia, completes its merger with Discovery Inc., which has its own streaming service, Discovery+.

In the meantime, HBO Max will kick off its international expansion on June 29 in Latin America and the Caribbean, where subscriptions will start at $3 per month — far less than the $15 price in the U.S. The HBO brand is already well-known in the region, where the network has enjoyed a presence since 1991. HBO Latin America, as the division is called, operates its own channels, which collectively have about 10 million subscribers.

HBO Max has committed to making 100 original productions in Latin America over the next two years and will stream the popular UEFA Champions League soccer matches live to subscribers in Brazil and Mexico. HBO Max will be available on several pay-TV services in the region including those of AT&T Inc., which currently owns WarnerMedia and is a major wireless operator in Mexico.

Even with such advantages, HBO Max will find itself competing for customers in a crowded market. Netflix is the dominant streaming player in Latin America, with about 38 million subscribers. Disney+ launched in the region in November. Paramount+ arrived in March. Another Disney-owned streaming service, Star+, which will have live sports from ESPN, will debut in August. A service from Televisa-Univision, a new Spanish-language media venture, will show up next year.

“HBO Max is walking into a region where there’s a lot of competition already,” said Simon Murray, the principal analyst at Digital TV Research.

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Expanding in Europe may be even more challenging.

Sometime later this year, HBO Max will launch in 21 countries in Europe. While WarnerMedia will be able to offer HBO Max directly to streaming subscribers in several areas, including the Nordics, Spain and Portugal, it will not be able to launch the service in France until the end of HBO’s deal with OCS, which is owned by the French telecom giant Orange SA. That deal expires at the end of 2022.

HBO Max’s European expansion could be particularly hampered by WarnerMedia’s current deal with Sky, a dominant pay-TV provider with about 23 million subscribers, which first struck a deal to air HBO programming in 2010. Unlike the U.S. market, where HBO can be seen on a range of cable and satellite TV services and streaming platforms, Sky is the exclusive home of HBO in its territories.

In the fall of 2019, HBO and Sky renewed their deal. The move was financially beneficial for WarnerMedia but may have been short-sighted, said Michael Nathanson, an analyst at MoffettNathanson. “It was a legacy of the old Time Warner,” Nathanson said, referring to HBO’s former owner. “The old Time Warner, when they had a chance way back when to take the easy money or go the hard route, they took the easy money.”

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In an interview, Johannes Larcher, head of HBO Max International, praised the benefits of the Sky deal for both HBO and HBO Max. “Sky is a very good partner to us,” he said. “Not only is this financially super-lucrative for us but it also helps fund the rollout of HBO Max in other territories.”

Sky, he said, also helps to popularize HBO programming — priming customers for HBO Max’s eventual arrival, whenever that may be. Still, he acknowledged, “our hands are tied there a little bit.”

Larcher, a former Hulu executive who also oversaw Shahid VIP, an Arabic language streaming service, said his goal is “to bring HBO Max to every place and corner of the world,” including, eventually, the markets dominated by Sky. “Anyone who is serious about being a global player in streaming has to have a presence there,” he said. “You can expect we will be looking very closely at launching in these markets as soon as we can.”

As part of their deal, HBO and Sky also co-produce shows together like “Chernobyl” and “Catherine the Great.” Even after the current agreement expires, they may want to continue that partnership, said François Godard, an analyst at Enders Analysis.

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Another complicating factor is that Sky is now owned by Comcast Corp., the largest U.S. cable operator and a key distributor of WarnerMedia cable channels such as HBO, CNN, TNT and TBS. Comcast also owns NBCUniversal and is planning to expand NBC’s streaming service, Peacock, in Sky markets across Europe and other territories, competing with HBO Max when it arrives.

Due to past licensing deals, HBO Max could face additional marketing challenges. While Sky has advertised itself as the “Home of HBO,” many British viewers don’t know the HBO brand well because it doesn’t operate as an independent channel on Sky’s pay-TV service as it does in the U.S., Godard said. Instead, HBO shows like “Game of Thrones” air on Sky Atlantic, which features a mix of American programming. “The bulk of viewers would first think of Sky not HBO,” Godard said. “They would have to spend a lot of money to explain what the brand is about.”

HBO Max could get some help in Europe next year when its parent merges with Discovery, which has a large business on the continent. Discovery’s chief executive, David Zaslav, who will run the combined company, is well-versed in the nuances of Europe’s media landscape. At an investor conference in late May, Zaslav said his international experience is “a really significant” competitive advantage.

At one point, he was asked about American media companies getting more aggressive in expanding their businesses outside the U.S. “I would say welcome to the party,” said Zaslav. “Put your seatbelt on because this is not for the faint of heart.”


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