WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar Tackles HBO Max Launch, Brand Confusion, Streaming Rivals In CNBC Interview

WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar Tackles HBO Max Launch, Brand Confusion, Streaming Rivals In CNBC Interview

In an interview with CNBC, WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar addressed the launch of HBO Max, conceded to a “mistake” with HBO branding and comparing it with on Disney and NBCUniversal’s streaming efforts.


Today’s interview (watch a large chunk of it above) was Kilar’s first since major layoffs hit WarnerMedia this week. Starting late Friday and continuing Monday, some 600 staffers departed the company, a roster headed by Bob Greenblatt and Kevin Reilly, the two executives shepherding the May 27 debut of HBO Max.


Kilar, who started as CEO on May 1, wasn’t asked about the layoffs in general, though he did field one query about the cable networks Reilly oversaw. He said he can “sleep well” knowing Casey Bloys now runs those businesses. His comments follow those of AT&T CFO John Stephens on Tuesday, who said the reductions should not be viewed as a course-correction after the “really great” HBO Max launch.

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“If you take a look at the last 60 days by any measure, from my perspective we’re in a really good position,” Kilar said of HBO Max, which drew 4.1 million signups in its first two months. “If you look at what last year we thought and hoped we would be at the end of 2020, which is 36 million HBO and HBO Max subscribers, we just announced a couple weeks ago that we’re actually north of 36 million already. And obviously, the number is going up everyday.”


Kilar was pressed for how he would compare the HBO Max numbers with those of rivals Disney+ and Peacock. Disney reported 10 million signups in the first day for Disney+ last November, and said last week it now has more than 60 million global subscribers. Peacock has drawn 10 million sign-ups since launching in April (a metric, it should be noted, that is different from actual subscriptions). Kilar, formerly a senior executive at Amazon and founding CEO of Hulu, gently but firmly pushed back on both fronts.


“If you actually dive deeper in terms of apples-to-apples comparison, especially on the NBC side of things, I think you’ll see a bit of a different story,” he said, without elaborating. On Disney, he echoed a common critique in the industry and among Wall Street skeptics that the service is successful but limited. John Stankey, now CEO of WarnerMedia parent AT&T, called it “not that deep” at an investor conference last December, when he was running the entertainment company and prepping the launch of HBO Max.

“Keep in mind,” Kilar said, “that Disney is a 100-year-old, surgically precise brand with regard to families with kids under the ages of 9, generally speaking. So they did exactly what they should have done, and kudos to them. Ours is a very different journey. I would argue in success ours is a bigger outcome because we are really going after all members of the family and all individuals. So, the opportunity is bigger.”


One hurdle in the early going for HBO Max is the fact that it entered the marketplace at the same time as two other well-established streaming offerings, HBO Go and HBO Now. WarnerMedia is phasing out Go, which was its authenticated platform for HBO subscribers. HBO Now, a direct-to-consumer version of the linear HBO offering, without the extra programming or originals contained on Max, has been renamed as just HBO.


“In hindsight,” Kilar said, it was “a mistake” to maintain “a number of brands in the market that were ultimately confusing.” Reducing the options to HBO and HBO Max, he reasoned, is “a much simpler proposition for consumers.”