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Warner Bros. Discovery is Axing HBO Max Originals and That’s a Problem for Customers and Creators

Matt Tamanini

As Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav continues to remake the recently merged company into his own image and likeness, hundreds of films and episodes of television have been unceremoniously removed from the company’s flagship streaming service with little to no warning to fans and subscribers. This has resulted in confusion, anger, accusations, and distrust from both fans and creators alike and have left consumers wondering what the future of HBO Max looks like under this new leadership team.

At the heart of the issue is the fact that Zaslav’s chief task once the companies were merged was to find $3 billion in savings, mainly to offset a hefty sum of debt — reported to be roughly $55 million — inherited by the WarnerMedia acquisition. That has resulted in dozens upon dozens of people losing their jobs, films being shelved for tax write-off purposes, hit series being canceled, and hundreds of hours of programming disappearing from the streamer, including over 200 classic episodes of beloved children’s educational series “Sesame Street.”

Many of the removals and cancelations hit the unscripted, animation, and children’s programming spaces as Zaslav had long touted his desire to reexamine how HBO Max handled kid's content. With Discovery being one of the preeminent homes of unscripted content in the world, eliminating HBO Max’s unscripted division is not wholly surprising, despite the fact that the two brands’ approaches to the genre are markedly different.

Deadline reported over the weekend that HBO Max’s average cost per hour-long episode of unscripted TV was $2 million, while Discovery’s is generally around $500,000. So, while the elimination of HBO Max’s unscripted division could be chalked up to the elimination of redundancies created by the merger, it also certainly has to do with bringing costs down across the space, and perhaps changing the look, feel, and focus of HBO Max unscripted content.

WBD has not indicated what the unscripted changes mean for hits like “FBoy Island,” “Selena+Chef,” “Legendary,” and others, but it does raise questions as to what their futures hold under new leadership.

Unsurprisingly, the reaction to these removals across all genres has been almost universally negative, both from fans — who had come to count on the reliability of the service’s content library — and from creators — who are seeing years of work essentially erased from the platform.

While some content owners and creators posted subtle reactions to the news, like the always classy “Sesame Street”:

Others went to further extremes, encouraging audiences to find less-than-legal ways to watch the programming outside the confines of HBO Max. Owen Dennis, the creator of recently axed animated show “Infinity Train,” did go on to say that he does not support pirating the show in a newsletter post, but his initial reaction on Twitter showed how upset he was with the WBD decision:

Last week, WBD announced that nearly 40 shows, more than half of which were Max Originals, were exiting the platform, including “Infinity Train,” large swaths of “Sesame Street” episodes, and animated series “Summer Camp Island.” Creator Julia Pott took to Twitter to voice her shock and displeasure with the situation, especially since there is a sixth season of the show finished, but the status of when and where it will be available to stream is still up in the air.

Subsequent reporting has indicated that Warner Bros. Discovery had not informed creators and show-runners of the series removals before they were reported in various trade publications, leading to even more anger and distrust of Zaslav and his team.

Content coming and going from services has been a part of the streaming experience for years, and while it has always annoyed consumers, it was baked into the industry’s value proposition, especially as streamers built their libraries by licensing shows and movies from outside studios. That is why we have seen long-time bingeable favorites like “Friends” and “The Office” exit Netflix in recent years.

However, what has made these moves from WBD more disconcerting for consumers and creators alike is that many of the titles leaving the service have been Max Originals — shows and movies specifically created by and for HBO Max. So their exits are not because contracts with content providers have expired, but generally because Zaslav and company are looking to save money off of the backends of deals.

Many movie fans are familiar with these types of deals that allow stars and creators to defer upfront payment in favor of receiving a portion the box office after the film’s release; in streaming, these agreements are similar, but work a little differently. While all deals are different, many require WBD to pay creators and executive producers royalties to keep a title on the service; similar to how artists are continually paid if a show airs reruns in syndication.

Therefore, for shows that are not driving enough engagement on the site, Zaslav and his team have determined that their value to the platform is not enough to justify the continued investment.

Depending on individual union contracts, these residual payments also allow artists to remain eligible for union health insurance, another factor that has resulted in creators being upset about WBD’s decisions to drop shows that had been expected to have a home in perpetuity.

These types of moves are expected to result in “tens of millions” of dollars in savings according to insiders who spoke with CNBC last week, so they will help Zaslav’s bottom line, but at what cost?

One disappointing byproduct of many of these cuts has been their impact on underrepresented populations. Many of the unscripted shows that have been canceled because of the restructuring include series led by people of color, including “About Last Night,” “12 Dates of Christmas,” and “My Mom, Your Dad.” HBO Max’s unscripted team also featured a number of diverse executives, including outgoing SVP for non-fiction original programming Rebecca Quinn.

“If you look at all the people getting let go and all of the shows that are getting pulled, it’s like being whitewashed,” a source told Deadline. “That’s not part of their equation when they make decisions, but I just think that they don’t care.”

This comes on the heels of Bloomberg reporting that as Zaslav has assembled his executive team, he has often opted to pull from management ranks that he has experience with, which has mostly resulted in hiring a predominately white, and disproportionately male, team.

The titles that were surprisingly dropped from HBO Max last week were:

  • 12 Dates of Christmas
  • About Last Night
  • Aquaman: King of Atlantis
  • Close Enough
  • Detention Adventure
  • Dodo
  • Ellen’s Next Great Designer
  • Elliott From Earth
  • Esme & Roy
  • The Fungies!
  • Generation Hustle
  • Genera+ion
  • Infinity Train
  • Little Ellen
  • Mao Mao, Heroes of Pure Heart
  • Messy Goes to Okido
  • Mia’s Magic Playground
  • Mighty Magiswords
  • My Dinner with Herve
  • My Mom, Your Dad
  • Odo
  • OK K.O.! - Let’s Be Heroes
  • The Ollie & Moon Show
  • Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures
  • Ravi Patel’s Pursuit of Happiness
  • Select Sesame Street Specials
  • Make It Big, Make It Small
  • Share
  • Squish
  • Summer Camp Island
  • The Not-Too-Late Show with Elmo
  • The Runaway Bunny - Special
  • Theodosia
  • Tig n’ Seek
  • Uncle Grandpa
  • Victor and Valentino
  • Yabba Dabba Dinosaurs

In efforts to make HBO Max a more streamlined, cost-conscious service in the vein of lifestyle corporate streaming sibling discovery+which it will merge with in summer 2023 — Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav is fighting self-inflicted battles on multiple fronts.

First with customers who are not only losing access to titles that they believed would be available forever, but also struggling to understand what type of content HBO Max will be focusing on moving forward. These types of questions, especially as WBD moves forward to integrate its two very different services into a single platform, could result in consumers no longer feeling comfortable subscribing to a service in such states of flux.

The second concern that Zaslav has brought upon himself is the now-damaged relationships that the company has with content creators. Of course, artists will always want to work with HBO, but in trying to appease Wall Street by cutting costs at the streamer, the CEO might have made it more difficult to appeal to the people that have made the service as popular as it has become in its first two years.

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