Column: HBO is the jewel in Warner Bros. Discovery’s crown. And apparently they hate it

A diptych of two women, one in a robe drinking a glass of wine, the other in a form fitting dress
Meghann Fahy in HBO’s “The White Lotus,” left, and Kelle in TLC’s “MILF Manor.”

The network that put the prestige into prestige television has just been devoured by the artistic revolution it helped spark.

Where once its logo ran “It’s not TV. It’s HBO,” it could now read, for streaming purposes anyway, “It’s not HBO, it’s just plain Max.”

On Wednesday, Warner Bros. Discovery, recently criticized for “hollowing out an iconic American studio,” announced that it is continuing its scorched-earth tactics by adding Discovery+ programming to HBO Max and renaming the streamer “Max.” (“Joshua” having been, presumably, copyrighted by the creators of “WarGames.”)


Never has streaming’s desire for quantity over quality been more vividly illustrated than Warner Bros. Discovery‘s decision to value “Max” over “HBO.”

To add insult to injury, Discovery+ will remain its own freestanding platform. So it’s not about managing one platform instead of two.

HBO, the television network, will remain unchanged (for now at least), so those viewers who rely on their cable box for access to “Succession,” “The White Lotus,” “The Last of Us,” “House of the Dragon” or the upcoming final season of “Barry” can continue to watch undisturbed by the vagaries of the streaming wars.

Those who use HBO Max to keep up with their favorites, dip into the many fine HBO Max originals or browse the formidable HBO library are in for a culture shock.

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Like HBO Max, Discovery+ has an easily identifiable personality, leaning heavily into nonfiction and reality series, with content from the Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, TLC, the Travel Network and CNN.

To call the quasi-merger a personality clash is an understatement. “Ghost Adventures” and “Say Yes to the Dress,” (never mind “MILF Manor” and “Dr. Pimple Popper”) seem completely at odds with “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “Sex and the City,” “Enlightened,” “Game of Thrones” and all the many HBO series that have, you know, redefined television and propelled it to become the dominant art form of this century.

But sure, lump it all together and call it Max. You’ve got nothing to lose but the most important brand in television.


(And heaven knows we are all longing for yet another junked-up streamer full of so much unrelated content that after attempting to navigate it, we shut it off and reach for a book. Or TikTok.)

Apparently Warner Bros. Discovery execs believe that HBO, with its reputation for big important television, was off-putting to a wider market. But in excising it from the “new” streamer, WBD is getting rid of exactly what it needs — name recognition.

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Even in this increasingly heartless world of algorithms and competition rates, of platforms and networks desperate for an identity, HBO still means something.

Only “PBS” evokes a certain viewer expectation as instantly and clearly as “HBO,” and with HBO there are fewer hatboxes and more Emmys involved.

Is it, as Warner Bros. Discovery has argued, an elite brand? Yes indeed, by intention and thank God.

Despite very credible efforts by many platforms, HBO remains a gold standard of television. Because it historically produced so few new shows each season, those shows were, and are, almost always highly anticipated and closely watched. Many remain beacons of real-time, single-episode viewing (including on HBO Max) in an “I’ll get to it eventually” world.


Even with increasingly scattered marketing efforts, it remains the company most creators long to work with; having a show on HBO, even an unsuccessful one, conveys career gravitas that no other platform can endow.

The creation of HBO Max, with its demand for a welter of content, inevitably diluted that brand, though not as much as many (including myself) had initially feared. With series including “Station Eleven,” “Hacks” and even “Our Flag Means Death,” it was sometimes difficult to see much difference between the two HBO platforms. Still, there remain plenty of shows on HBO Max that would seem right at home on myriad other streamers.

But most certainly not on Discovery+.

I’m not saying that people who enjoy “Succession” don’t also watch “Xtreme Waterparks” — the human heart has many chambers and infinite desires. “MILF Manor” may share more themes with “The White Lotus” than some are prepared to admit, and everyone loved “Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy.”

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But since it got into the original scripted series business, HBO has maintained a unique status. It is difficult to name a year in which at least one HBO series was not among the most critically acclaimed, talked about and, usually, most Emmy-awarded. It is the jewel in any media empire’s crown.

So why claw it out of the crown and toss it onto the “everything’s 75% off” table? The new “Max” platform will cost about as much as HBO Max, which tells you all you need to know about how much they value the Discovery+ content. They are literally throwing it in for free.

No doubt Warner Bros. is envisioning a world in which viewers come to Max for “Succession” and stay for “Seeking Brother Husband.” But a forced marriage of that sort obliterates the very brand that helped create the streaming business by making television what it is today.


For years, HBO has been the couture of television, affecting the stories we watch in ways that are impossible to calculate. For years it was a singular domain, but the recent rush to produce “Sopranos”-quality prestige television, first on basic cable and then on streaming, sparked a modern artistic renaissance. Television moved to the forefront of cultural conversation and drew talent from from all quarters, including the big screen and Broadway.

Much of it boiled down to everyone trying to beat HBO at its own game.

Instead, the fractured and fractious streaming landscape is pulling HBO into the mire.

One could argue, as I have, that HBO has historically defined “prestige” as white and male. (Not that Warner Bros. Discovery is much better, having been recently called out for scrapping Latino content). Still, the creative chances it took and artistic advancements it made are undeniable.

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It was able to do this by remaining separate from the rest of the industry, less concerned with conjuring huge audience numbers than producing work remarkable enough that people were willing to pay to see it.

Home Box Office indeed.

Squashing its programming into Max, along with ghost hunters and home improvement serials, won’t immediately affect HBO originals. Recent additions such as “The White Lotus” and “The Last of Us” proves Casey Bloys, chairman and chief executive of HBO and HBO Max content, remains committed to the brand’s high-quality weekly series.

Of course, HBO Max has a big catalog of non-HBO or HBO Max originals, including the “Harry Potter,” DC and “Doctor Who” franchises as well as many other films and series (I was recently delighted to find “Fringe” there), including reality shows. But it feels, if not exactly exquisitely curated, than tonally of a piece and, more important, manageable, like HBO itself.

Unfortunately, Warner Bros. Discovery has just made it very clear that it values “more” far more than “good” — and with critically acclaimed shows including “Succession” and “Barry” coming to an end, it’s difficult not to worry that its “more is more” thinking won’t seep into the network‘s development as well.


Let’s hope not. After all, couture exists to inspire; the whole point is that it is not mass market.

Knockoffs are fine, but you don’t sell Valentino at Target.