On May 23, the Warner Bros. Discovery mega-media company pulled the trigger on its big streaming app upgrade–well, downgrade, really. Yesterday was the launch of the new “Max” app and service, where the company put all its streaming content together in one place. Practically speaking, this means adding Discovery content to HBO Max.
For the Apple TV, the experience is a huge step backward. There’s a new app, technical glitches, missing features, and worse pricing–and there’s no good reason for any of it. It’s a comedy of errors that smells of executive meddling against the better advice of real product designers who know what people actually want.
Look for the Max app
Fire up the HBO Max app and you’re greeted with a large message: “Something went wrong.” The company has been sending out easy-to-ignore emails for a while now mentioning that Max is coming, but you can forgive most Apple device users for assuming that the now-defunct HBO Max app would just update to Max. Nope. It’s a new app you have to go download, and the error message on the HBO Max app doesn’t tell you that.
I’m not sure who decided to call this “Max,” when the “Max” (a.k.a. Cinemax) part of the content was not very popular and the HBO brand has been synonymous with must-watch prestige TV.
From a corporate suit perspective, it makes sense. HBO wasn’t exactly known for kid’s programming or the sort of low-effort, leave-it-on-in-the-background unscripted reality TV that dominates Discovery. We wouldn’t want people to think they were missing out on that!
Social media has obviously been overflowing with “god this is dumb” comments, but the best take has to come from NBC Universal’s rival streaming platform Peacock on Twitter.
There are other problems, of course. The app is basic with over-simple navigation given the breadth of content. For some reason, someone who should really know better decided to lump writers, directors, and producers all together into one “Creators” section, which immediately angered the Writer’s Guild of America and the Director’s Guild for no benefit whatsoever.
A bad custom player, again?
Max’s video playback is a custom job instead of the native tvOS player, and it’s just as bad as you’d imagine. It’s almost (but not quite) as bad as the Peacock player was at launch.
You don’t get the Siri remote jog wheel function, you can’t use the wonderful Siri “what did he/she say?” feature, there’s no picture-in-picture support, none of the system-wide accessibility features are supported (like reducing flashing lights or loud sounds), matching content frame rate, and so on.
The funny thing is, the company should really know better. The HBO Max app went through a big update two years ago that dropped the native player for a custom one and the outcry was so big that they brought the native tvOS player back in a month.
Quite a few users have noticed a lack of support for the Up Next queue in the TV app on Apple TV, but it appears this is a technical glitch that doesn’t affect everyone. I’ve got Succession and Barry in my Up Next queue and they still work fine, though they had to redirect to the new Max app.
Don’t worry, at least it costs more!
Worst of all, the price has gone up. There’s a $9.99 monthly ad-supported tier and a $15.99 ad-free tier that also lets you download 30 pieces of content. Those are the same as the old HBO Max pricing, though you can now only watch on up to two screens at once instead of three. But the ad-free tier used to give you 4K and HDR video and Dolby Atmos audio, and those are now locked behind a more expensive $19.99 Ultimate plan (which also gives you two more simultaneous streams and a total of 100 downloads).
Anyone who already has an HBO Max ad-free subscription is grandfathered in for six months, but after that, you’re going to have to pay $4 a month more for the same audio and video quality.
Clearly, someone at Warner Bros. Discovery wants Max to be the new Netflix–a video streaming service with a huge breadth of content you seemingly can’t do without and are willing to pay a fortune for. And if Netflix can get away with shunning all the tvOS standards, why can’t they? But Warner Bros. Discovery doesn’t have a first-mover advantage, and the streaming landscape is more competitive than ever.
“Something went wrong,” indeed. That $6.99-a-month Apple TV+ subscription is starting to look better every day.