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Historically, upfronts are a rare moment for the television industry. Every spring, the major networks present their products to advertisers, hoping to sell airtime at the best price. This year, however, the upfronts are happening in the midst of a Writers Guild of America strike, and most events have occurred with pickets gathering outside. Netflix canceled his in-person event and made the presentation virtually.
When Jon Steinlauf, director of US ad sales for Warner Bros. Discovery, took the stage two days ago for his company’s annual speech, he was ready to address the elephant in the room: “What you’re about to to see is not exactly the show we hoped to put on today. We made the decision to have only executives on stage out of respect for our talent and the WGA.”
Like many of the other trailers this week, WBD’s presentation focused on unscripted content: sporting events, news, docuseries. But unlike the other networks, WBD, the result of a merger between Warner Media and Discovery, was just days away from one of its biggest moves yet, something in which they were about to invest more marketing dollars than anything else in the company’s history: the reboot of HBO Max as just Max.
It’s almost hard to remember now, but HBO Max launched at the height of the Covid-19 lockdowns, in May 2020. It seemed like the best and worst time to launch a streaming service. Everyone was stuck at home and dying to see new content, but so was all the people who make TV shows and movies. The service had a great back catalog, but couldn’t promise much new content beyond what had been done before launch.
On Tuesday May 23, almost exactly three years later, it offers a new service that combines what Max already has with that of Discovery+, but it is also facing a writers’ strike that has put many productions on hold. “I am hopeful that a fair resolution with the writers will be found soon which would, of course, bring talent back to this stage,” HBO and Max CEO Casey Bloys said during the interview. “Until then, you’re kind of stuck with me and my clips.”
In the grand scheme of things, a streaming service changing its name from a predictably milquetoast to an even less descriptive one isn’t very remarkable. But now there’s another big bump in Max’s launch, a road that’s already bumpy. And while it may seem like HBO is cursed with having a terrible time, there are things the company could do to avoid these roadblocks. For starters, it could push the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers to make a deal with the WGA, whose members picketed the WBD’s opening performance at the Madison Square Garden Theater with signs reading “Don’t urinate in my leg”. and tell me, ‘It’s broadcasting,'” and chanting: “When I say ‘IA,’ you say ‘bye.’”