HBO Max confirmed, let’s pray Innovation Lab has better ideas

WarnerMedia’s so-called Innovation Lab has been heralded as an earth-shattering project tipped to transform the landscape of content and OTT video experiences forever. For something which isn’t much more than a few ideas on a piece of paper right now, claiming it will automatically propel WarnerMedia’s new streaming service to the hottest thing since sliced bread is, pardon the pun, a little OTT.

A marriage between content and technology unlike anything the streaming world has ever seen is why the AT&T-owned forthcoming service, confirmed as being named HBO Max as of this week, is being lauded so highly. New York City will be the home of the first WarnerMedia Innovation Lab, where innovating will commence around Q1 2020.

The aim of the Innovation Lab is ultimately to unify AT&T’s technology clout with WarnerMedia’s studio finesse to solve a whole host of business problems. WarnerMedia is betting big on 5G as well as the Xandr advertising technology unit within the newly formed Innovation Lab, where data and findings will flow from seven initial lab locations to various executives which make up the Innovation Council. This is all sounding a little Star Wars all of a sudden.

Speaking of which, lightspeed travel might be a few years away but the Innovation Lab promises to invest in superfast network technologies and real-time cloud production workflow to alleviate buffering woes. Potential future revenue streams from experiences like VR, gaming and e-sports will be thrown into the mix, all the while harnessing AI wherever it can to keep costs down and data rich.

WarnerMedia Innovation Lab GM Jesse Redniss told Forbes, “We have a portfolio of opportunities to drive. What we’ll be focusing on is answering the question, ‘What would content look like for 170 million phones as they converge with 5G and IoT?’ And then determining how the company can share such knowledge, once it’s developed, between all the units so that we can continue to be a future-forward media company.”

Setting up a new R&D premises and giving it a decorative name like Innovation Lab or Future Zone is a classic method of keeping the press flush with buzzwords and Forbes lapped up the bait. But if there’s anything to learn from this industry, technology clout does not automatically equate to great content, and amazing content does not guarantee competent technology. Apple is a perfect example of the former, yet Cook and Co. are obviously lacking the studio ingredients boasted by WarnerMedia, so in theory HBO Max should wipe the floor with competition with the exception of Netflix. A potential poisoned chalice.

Meanwhile, following a recent internal leak, AT&T confirmed this week that WarnerMedia’s streaming service has been christened HBO Max and will feature an extensive collection of exclusive original programming (coined Max originals), along with “the best-of-the-best” from WarnerMedia’s extensive portfolio. WarnerMedia has not done itself any favors here, using the Max brand which has been popularized by Pepsi, giving us no option but to draw comparisons between Coca Cola (Netflix) versus Pepsi (HBO Max) – where the latter is seen as an inferior replica.

HBO Max will officially launch in spring 2020 with 10,000 hours of premium content. It has inked movie production deals with producers Greg Berlanti and Reese Witherspoon, along with a string of new dramas set to come out of Warner Bros. HBO Max has also secured exclusive rights to all 236 episodes of Friends, plus popular titles The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and Pretty Little Liars.

Just 7 Max Original series are in the pipeline for now, while 9 new HBO programming series have been previously announced for 2020 and 2021. All in all, the unveiling of HBO Max doesn’t exactly inspire a revolution, albeit in its fledgling state with some 9 months until launch, which is probably why the press release features flattering quotes from the likes of George R.R. Martin and Nicole Kidman, to drum up excitement.

“Back in 1991, after a decade in television, I began writing a series of novels that I knew would never be filmed. A Game of Thrones and its sequels were too big, too complex, too dark, too sexy, with a cast of thousands, gigantic battles, massive castles, direwolves, ice wights, and dragons. Too sprawling for a feature film, too expensive for television. I should have remembered, ‘It’s not television, it’s HBO’,” commented Martin.

The rumor mill has been particularly active regarding WarnerMedia in recent weeks, the latest being reports that DirecTV Now will eventually be merged into the new streaming service, according to CNBC. It claims AT&T will use a common search and UI, offering a discounted bundle with a wireless package. So really the Innovation Lab could be as much about carving out a killer 5G-come-content marketing campaign as genuine technical developments.

AT&T meanwhile has been victim of internal disagreement over what content should be exclusive to its forthcoming WarnerMedia streaming service and what should be licensed to third parties. There are pros and cons either way with the risk of losing revenue through exclusivity to a platform that may not gain as many subscribers as hoped. AT&T has also indicated there will be three tiers of content within the one universal WarnerMedia service, which adds further to confusion.