AT&T’s HBO Max and Comcast’s Peacock saw a surge in sign-ups in recent months, an indication they’re gaining some momentum in an uphill fight against Netflix and Walt Disney.
AT&T chief executive officer John Stankey, speaking at an investment conference Tuesday, said HBO Max has added about four million new users in less than three months, putting activations at 12.6 million.
Peacock, meanwhile, has attracted about 26 million sign-ups since its launch, which began in April, Comcast said Tuesday. That’s up from 22 million announced in October. But Peacock offerings include a free version with ads, and a paid version without ads, making it difficult to compare with HBO Max and other streaming platforms.
The two media conglomerates are playing catch-up in a streaming industry with more entrenched players, including Netflix, Disney and Amazon.com. Netflix has 65 million subscribers in the United States alone, and many more overseas. And Disney has a trio of services — Disney+, Hulu and ESPN+ — that it sells as a bundle.
But an influx of new programming is giving HBO Max a boost. Such shows as The Undoing and The Flight Attendant have helped fuel an “incredible pace” of customer gains, Stankey said in the presentation. It’s also bolstered the amount of time viewers spend with the service, a measure that’s up about 36% in the last 30 days.
The subscriber update comes just days after AT&T shocked Hollywood by announcing plans to put all its 2021 Warner Bros. movies on HBO Max at the same time they debut in theaters.
The shift in strategy created some blow back for AT&T. Director Christopher Nolan, who has a long relationship with the studio, criticized the plan on Monday, describing it as a betrayal of filmmakers. He also slammed HBO Max as an inferior streaming service.
Stankey used his presentation Tuesday to help justify the decision to have big-budget movies debut on HBO Max at the same time they open in theaters.
"It's really important that we have a direct relationship with consumers," Stankey said. With the pandemic shutting down theaters and disrupting TV-show production, "it's important that these new distribution platforms scale faster for fear of being left behind," he said.
Comcast's Universal studio has made similar efforts to shorten the theatrical window — the amount of time a movie plays exclusively at cinemas — though it hasn't taken as drastic a step as AT&T. In its presentation, the company said that shorter film windows will add value to its operations, but stressed that theaters remain a critical part of the business.
Comcast also has less riding on Peacock than AT&T does with HBO Max. Though Peacock generates ad revenue, it isn't seen as an integral part of the cable giant's business. For now, the service — launched nationally in July — is mostly a way to attract customers who may also use the company's broadband services.
At AT&T, HBO Max is more central to its efforts to adapt to cord cutting — including people getting rid of the traditional HBO network. In its early months, the service got off to a slow start. It's more costly than the other major streaming platforms, and confusion over its use of the existing HBO brand may have kept some potential customers away. Stankey said the recent sign-ups show that HBO Max is building a base of users that will only grow when big movies start hitting the service.