ICT

HBO Max is offing HBO Go, a shot at Roku and Fire TV with you in the crossfire – CNET

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Game of Thrones streams on HBO Max and HBO Go — but not once HBO Go disappears Saturday. 

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HBO, the jewel of AT&T’s WarnerMedia unit, is winnowing down its various apps — HBO Go, HBO Now and the new, big-budget HBO Max. But that won’t simplify matters much, especially if you’re a Roku or Amazon Fire TV user. Starting Saturday, you may find yourself caught in the middle of a power battle over the future of TV. 

HBO Max launched at the end of May as the premium cable network’s newer, bigger streaming app. With twice the shows and movies at the same price of $15 a month, it’s meant to essentially replace the company’s previous apps, HBO Go and HBO Now. HBO Go has been the network’s streaming app for regular pay-TV HBO customers to watch over the internet. And HBO Now is the channel’s stand-alone streaming option that lets people stream HBO without any pay-TV bundles. 

But after Friday, HBO Go will be gone — and that puts some Roku and Amazon Fire TV users in a bind. Because HBO Max has failed to secure distribution deals with both of those device makers, it isn’t available to stream on those devices, which are the most popular TV streaming devices in the country. So anybody who currently streams HBO Go on a Roku or Fire TV won’t have the simple app meant to replace it.

“Essentially it is a new take on the age-old debate over whether content or distribution is king,” Lightshed analyst Rich Greenfield wrote in a note after after HBO Max revealed its plan to phase out its Go and Now apps. “While the headline … is to remove consumer confusion around HBO branding and which app to use, the shift also increases the pressure on Amazon and Roku to reach a deal for HBO Max.”

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HBO Max launched at the end of May.

Angela Lang/CNET

Streaming has grown more popular than ever during the coronavirus pandemic, amplifying the longtime trend of people watching more of their video online. For all the attention paid to the so-called streaming wars, the fiercest battle emerging isn’t between the various streaming service, but between the most powerful TV app distributors and deep-pocketed media companies instead. Both those sides are drawing their battle lines for control of the data and money generated by your streaming activity, as they try to entrench positions of power for the next era of TV. 

But in the meantime, you’re stuck taking shrapnel in the crossfire. It means you can’t watch all the top streaming services on all the top devices.

Power plays

Roku and Amazon Fire TV products are the most pervasive ways to stream on televisions in the US. Together, the two companies’ streaming devices and smart TVs made up 70% of all the streaming devices installed in the US last year, and they reach roughly 80 million active users between them. 

But rather than serving as neutral platforms for apps, lately Roku and Amazon both have been digging in their heels in talks with new streaming services. And media companies are pushing back on distribution terms with these devices makers, needing their new services to be as profitable as possible after investing billions to create them.

The HBO Max hubbub wasn’t the first time this tension between streaming services and device makers spilled out into public view. Earlier this year, a similar carriage dispute between Roku and Fox threatened to kick Fox’s apps off Roku boxes, right as those apps were set to stream the biggest TV event of the year: the Super Bowl. One day before kickoff, Fox and Roku reached a deal to keep the apps working in time for the game. 

But HBO Max wasn’t the last instance of this kind of conflict, either. After HBO Max rolled out without Roku and Amazon, NBCUniversal‘s Peacock from Comcast was a replay of the same standoff. Peacock launched nationwide July 15, but like Max before it, Peacock lacked Roku and Fire TV support because it couldn’t reach deals with those companies.  

The heart of the conflict is, of course, money and control. Todd Spangler at Variety has a solid summary of what each side is fighting for. 

But even with Saturday’s deadline close, HBO Max said late Thursday that it has nothing new to share about the negotiations. “We continue to work hard to reach agreements with the few outstanding distribution partners left to bring all of HBO Max to customers on platforms,” a spokeswoman said. Previously, HBO Max has said it has apps for Roku and Fire TV ready to go, but the service must work out deals with both companies first. 

Roku didn’t comment on the status of talks, and Amazon didn’t respond to a message seeking comment. 

Last week, though, AT&T’s chief executive dressed down Amazon for keeping HBO Max away from customers, while staying silent on Roku.

“We’ve tried repeatedly to make HBO Max available to all customers using Amazon Fire devices, including those customers that have purchased HBO via Amazon,” AT&T CEO John Stankey said, referring to people who pay for HBO using Amazon Channels, which lets you subscribe to multiple video services through your Amazon account. “Unfortunately, Amazon has taken an approach of treating HBO Max and its customers differently [from] how they’ve chosen to treat other services and their customers.”

But Wednesday, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said he believed eventually the company would come to an agreement with HBO Max, as he was questioned on Capitol Hill about whether Amazon abuses its market power. Ask by a congressman whether Amazon keeping services like Max off Fire TV to extract more favorable terms was a conflict of interest, Bezos said, “There could be scenarios, if we’re just talking in the abstract, where it could be inappropriate and scenarios where it would be very normal business and very appropriate.”

Simpler… but more complicated

Starting Saturday, HBO is narrowing down its streaming apps from three to two. HBO Max continues to be AT&T’s marquee service for streaming HBO. But after Friday, HBO will get rid of HBO Go, and HBO Now will be renamed simply “HBO.” Though the changes are meant to simplify HBO’s app offerings overall, the gaps in HBO Max’s availability make this simplification… complicated. 

So what do you do if you relied on HBO Go to stream on a Roku or Fire TV?

Supposedly, AT&T is collapsing HBO Go and HBO Now together into the rebranded app simply named HBO. While this app won’t have any of the extra originals, shows or movies that you get with HBO Max, you’ll still be able to stream regular HBO programming with it on Roku and Fire TV even after Go and Now are gone. In order to do that, you need to upgrade your HBO account to unlock HBO Max. At that point, you should be able to use your HBO Max credentials to sign into the new rebranded HBO app on both Roku and Amazon Fire TV.  

Unfortunately, not every HBO customer qualifies for that upgrade to Max. So: complicated. (CNET has an article explaining all the ways you could qualify for an upgrade to get those HBO Max credentials.)

In addition, Roku noted that people who pay for HBO through Comcast, Charter or AT&T TV can stream HBO on the Comcast Xfinity Stream, Spectrum TV and AT&T TV apps too. Amazon didn’t respond to messages seeking comment.  

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