HBO Max AVOD Plans Remain Under Wraps, But Kids & Family Upfront Splash Points The Way

With time ticking down toward the planned rollout of an ad-supported tier of HBO Max during the second quarter, key details like pricing, viewer experience and which programming will carry ads still remain under wraps. Even so, it is increasingly clear that kids and family programming is likely to be a key element in the streaming service’s pitch to advertisers.

WarnerMedia today cranked the dial, announcing dozens of new shows across HBO Max and linear networks as well as a new focus on Cartoon Network as a central kids and family brand. The network has also adopted a new self-empowerment motto that could double as a slogan for the entire company: “Redraw your world.”

JP Colaco, who worked closely with WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar at Hulu and then at video start-up Vessel, joined WarnerMedia last fall as the company’s head of ad sales. In an interview with Deadline, he declined to offer any specifics on the AVOD offering. But he said there was a reason to make an initial splash before the company’s main upfront pitch in May, which is likely to feature to full reveal.

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“What I do see is that this new initiative that we put forward, which is reaching preschool in the mornings, girls and boys in the afternoon and families in the evening, creates a really holistic approach to marketers and their ability to do ‘life-cycle’ marketing across our network,” he said. “We are creating unique experiences. We will see existing marketers step up because of the quality of the content and the IP experience and the audience they can reach with that. And we’ll see new advertisers who are interested in connecting with the whole family in a compelling way.”

As the kids and family slate — including 300 new hours for kids and 1,000 for preschoolers — is released in the fall, Colaco said, marketing initiatives around back-to-school season and Halloween will offer options for advertisers.

An AVOD level of HBO Max has been in the works for more than two years, but the undertaking is complex for a range of business and technological reasons. For starters, many stakeholders in HBO programming have contractual guarantees that their work will remain in an ad-free viewing environment. That has led to speculation that Turner programming would be more likely to feature ads, but tilting the balance away from HBO works against the efforts by WarnerMedia to break down silos that long existed between Turner, HBO and Warner Bros. While streaming services like Hulu and CBS All Access have added ad-free options after starting ad-supported, no large-scale ones have gone the other direction. In media history, one parallel is the evolution of cable networks like AMC and Bravo.

Tom Ascheim, who helped spearhead Nickelodeon’s dominance of the kids sectore before a more recent stint as a senior exec at Disney, joined WarnerMedia last year as president of Warner Bros. Global Kids, Young Adults and Classics. In the interview with Colaco, he said WarnerMedia’s digital reach is twice that of Nickelodeon, giving it access across social and digital platforms to 1 billion people around the world.

The multi-platform nature of the company’s assets, Ascheim said, sets it apart in the increasingly competitive kids and family arena, where tech giants are battling media companies like Disney, WarnerMedia, ViacomCBS and others. WarnerMedia will continue to emphasize a blend of its linear networks, which reach 440 million people globally, and subscription VOD, which started 2021 at 41.5 million subscribers across linear HBO and HBO Max.

“We have the history, the unity and the modern approach to rival any other kids and family player in the world,” Ascheim said during the online upfront presentation. “And wherever we are, unlike most of our rivals, we want you with us every step of the way — on linear, streaming and every part of the digital ecosystem.”

Ascheim told Deadline the company is “reimagining the way we’re going to talk to the audience.” He conceded that HBO Max last May got off to a “slightly slower start than we wanted.” Many users criticized what they felt were confusing consumer messages about how to access the service, which is free for existing HBO subscribers but $15 a month for new ones. Until the latter part of 2020, in a further source of frustration, HBO Max also was not yet available via Roku or Amazon Fire TV, which together control almost three-quarters of the U.S. streaming market.

Since that early friction, things have been looking up, Ascheim said. Warner Bros’ strategy to release its 2021 slate day-and-date in theaters and on HBO Max “will turn out to have been a smart way to have played the game,” he said. “We’re going to ride that all the way through the year.” Upcoming releases Tom & Jerry and Space Jam 2 are two key all-ages titles that will enable cross-pollination between the kids programming push and the effort to scale HBO Max. Teen Titans Go, a significant Cartoon Network franchise soon heading to HBO Max after a run on Hulu, will have a “watch party” — Mystery Science Theater-style — of the original Space Jam film in one synergistic effort.

Streaming “is a great house for our content,” Ascheim said. “HBO means so many incredible things in the universe. It’s a moniker of quality unparalleled on television. But it doesn’t mean kids. I think part of our job is to round out that brand presence.” Despite the potency of DC, Cartoon Network, Looney Tunes, Hanna-Barbera and other brands, Ascheim continued, “We haven’t ever put it all together before.”

Live-action programming is also coming to Cartoon Network this fall, with major franchises like Harry Potter and Wonder Woman altering the all-animated mix. Ascheim said there is “proof of concept” in other countries, where audiences more readily adopt a blend of live action and animation. Girls as young as seven, he added, demonstrate interest in seeing live-action fare.

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