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Image: Getty / Tina Tiller

BusinessJuly 11, 2023

What does the new Sky-HBO deal mean for the impending arrival of Max?

hbo max, max, sky and neon logos
Image: Getty / Tina Tiller

A new multi-year content deal between HBO and Sky has been confirmed. Does that mean we won’t be getting HBO’s ‘super streamer’ Max any more?

It seemed like New Zealand’s Max dream might have stalled. Maybe it was even – gasp – over? “Sky and Warner Bros Discovery renew long-term agreement in New Zealand,” was the subject of Friday’s surprise press release. “Max poised for an NZ launch? … Not so fast,” responded NZ Herald, including a photo of wannabe Succession successor Kendall Roy putting his hands in the air, like he was surrendering.

The news about a short-term handshake between an American TV giant and a small Aotearoa streaming service even made it to the industry news pages of Variety. The agreement confirmed HBO’s upcoming slate of big-budget, must-see shows – popular franchises like House of the Dragon, The Last of Us and The White Lotus – would air in New Zealand first on Sky TV and its streaming service Neon, Variety reported.

If all of HBO’s content was heading to Sky TV and Neon for the foreseeable future, then what did this mean for Max, Warner Bros Discovery’s hyped “super streamer” service being rolled out around the world? The news seemed to infer that Max might not be coming after all. “We have no specific details for the New Zealand launch at this stage,” a spokesperson told Variety. The same statement was also supplied to The Spinoff.

Emma D’Arcy, Matt Smith and two wigs of varying quality in House of the Dragon. (Photo: HBO)

Max (not to be confused with Auckland’s long-defunct 90s station Max TV), was announced in August last year. It combined the might of American streaming services HBO Max and Discovery+ into one handy, soon-to-be global package designed to rival Netflix, Disney+ and Apple TV+. That announcement, The Spinoff reported at the time, was likely making bosses at Sky TV incredibly nervous. Or, as we put it: “Max is coming – whether Sky TV likes it or not.”

Along with sport, HBO is among the biggest drivers of subscribers for Sky TV packages, including its SoHo channel and streaming service Neon, which costs $17.99 a month. While Neon doesn’t reveal its streaming statistics, some of the year’s biggest and most talked-about shows, including The Last of Us and Succession, are only available in Aotearoa because of its long-standing deal with HBO. (It also gets eight full channels of content, including Living Channel, Animal Planet, Cartoon Network and CNN International.)

Since then, Max has taken some unusual steps, removing entire series from its streaming service, and licensing others to its competitors. Soon, Insecure, Band of Brothers and Six Feet Under will be airing on Netflix in America, bringing those shows to entirely new and larger audiences, as well as providing the company with an additional source of revenue.

But it was only April when Warner Bros Discovery boss David Zaslav seemed to confirm Max would be coming to Aotearoa. “It’s the one to watch,” he said at a live launch event, “because we have so many of the world’s iconic and globally recognised franchises. It’s our superpower.” A spokesperson later told Newshub: “We plan to roll out Max in key Asia-Pacific territories later in 2024.”

Friday’s press release seemed to suggest this might no longer be the case. When asked, a spokesperson told The Spinoff it wouldn’t discuss specifics of the deal, including how long it was for, but provided this statement for publication: “The deal provides optionality for the future launch of Max in New Zealand, including a provision to retail Max on Sky platforms.”

It’s likely Warner Bros Discovery is buying itself time. It is late to the streaming party and is attempting to roll Max out globally at a time when many streamers are struggling to adapt to an evolving market. Savvy streamers are wary of spending too long signed up to a single service, and tough economic conditions mean most are struggling to find the path to profitability. Several, including Netflix and Disney+, are rolling out cheaper, ad-supported tiers in an attempt to keep viewers using them for longer.

Sky’s deal took six months to hammer out, an insider suggested to The Spinoff, as the two companies wrangled over exclusivity clauses. They suggested the contract was likely a three-year deal, one that would probably include an opt-out clause should Warner Bros Discovery want to reclaim all of its HBO titles for the launch of Max down under. It’s also possible the pair may content share when Max launches, with new seasons of HBO premiering on Neon, before heading to Max.

Either way, it’s a rare lifeline for Sky, which has had little to celebrate lately, bungling the launch of its new set-top device Sky Box, and announcing mass layoffs of 170 staff. The rise of potential NZ Rugby streaming platform, NZR+, could also indicate more trouble looming in the near future.

James Gibbons, Warner Bros Discovery president and managing director for the Western Pacific region, described its partnership with Neon as “historic”. But, as Max continues to roll out, and as the streaming market continues to evolve, it’s also one that is surely destined for the history books.

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