3 (Related) Reasons Merging HBO Max and Discovery+ Is a Mistake

On the surface, the concept of combining streaming services HBO Max and Discovery+ seems sound enough. They’re both part of the same company, after all, since Discovery acquired Warner Bros. Entertainment from AT&T back in April to officially become Warner Bros. Discovery (NASDAQ: WBD). There’s no need to manage two distinct direct-to-consumer services when pairing them up would create marketability synergies.

Investors certainly welcome any move that might jolt the newly melded organizations into viability too. Shares of the unprofitable media giant are down over 20% just since the release of its second-quarter results on Aug. 4, with revenue of $9.8 billion falling well short of the expected $11.8 billion. Earnings missed, too. The subsequent selloff marks a 45% year-to-date loss and caps off more than an 80% pullback from last year’s highs. At this point, doing anything is better than doing nothing at all.

If you think combining Discovery+ and HBO Max into a single service is going to be the much-needed panacea, however, think again. There are three reasons the two platforms should remain separate, no matter how compelling the idea of merging them into a single super-service seems on the surface.

The math doesn’t work

Care to guess the No. 1 complaint the average consumer has about streaming services? If you guessed price, you’re (mostly) correct. In NPD Group’s most recent survey on the matter, consumers cited watching less television altogether as the most common reason for canceling a service. That, however, isn’t as much a complaint as it is an outcome of the world easing out of its pandemic habits.

The second most cited reason the survey’s respondents gave for saying farewell to a streaming service was the price, up two spots from where cost had previously ranked on the list just a quarter earlier. And for the record, TiVo’s similar survey, performed late last year, indicated that price hikes were the top reason for canceling a streaming service, with “wasn’t worth the amount we were paying” coming in at the No. 3 spot, right behind “we weren’t using it enough.”

Warner Bros. Discovery hasn’t yet said how much it will be charging for the combined service, to be clear. The price might well remain in HBO Max’s range of between $9.99 and $14.99 per month with the higher-cost tier being the ad-free version. Discovery+ costs $4.99 or $6.99 per month, again with advertisements being the distinguishing factor.

Charging less than the sum total of the current monthly cost of both services, however, could prove unviable. Despite having more than 90 million subscribers to at least one of its streaming services, the company’s direct-to-consumer business booked a $560 million EBITDA loss last quarter and a $1.53 billion operating loss. There might be no option to charge less.

Already-overwhelmed consumers

But will a super-service merit a higher price that consumers are willing to pay? Maybe but not likely.

While it’s arguably more of a perception and logistics problem than a value problem, it’s certainly a wrench in the gears of Warner Bros. Discovery’s plans. That is, consumers are already struggling with too much streaming choice.

In Nielsen‘s most recent State of Play report, the ratings and engagement outfit determined that 46% of consumers are feeling overwhelmed by the growing number of streaming services as well as by the sheer amount of content they must navigate within each service’s lineup — more than 800,000 unique titles in all. A survey taken by Verizon‘s media research arm and Publicis Media pegs the figure even higher at 67%.

Cramming the entirety of HBO Max’s (Warner’s) catalog into one package with all the Discovery+ content could create an unwieldy platform.

Distinctly different audiences

Still, perhaps Warner Bros. Discovery could find a means of helping its streaming customers figure out how to effectively find what they want to watch. Getting all of them over the value-perception hump at a healthy price, however, is still a tall order.

The average investor could have guessed as much, although the company verified it last week. As part of the presentation during the company’s quarterly earnings call, Warner Bros. Discovery plainly said HBO Max’s customers are more likely to be males with plans to enjoy content they can become engrossed in. Discovery+, on the other hand, offers casual, comfort content that largely appeals to females.

Image source: Warner Bros. Discovery Second-Quarter 2022 Conference Call Slide Deck.

Of course, none of this is to suggest that neither audience wouldn’t sometimes enjoy programming from the proverbial other side of the fence.

To the extent that households are looking to curb costs where they can, though, consumers might struggle to see the value in paying an above-average price for a great deal of content that may not be of great interest to them.

More new problems than solutions

Never say never. The combination of the two platforms could work well enough. It might even be a smashing success.

Given what we know about consumer norms and expectations, however, the prospect of joining Discovery+ with HBO Max into a singular service that’s more successful than the two distinct services currently and collectively are seems like a stretch. At the very least, current and would-be shareholders should be cautious as they track the company’s progress. More realistically, though, they should be skeptical of the plan.

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James Brumley has positions in AT&T and Warner Bros. Discovery, Inc. The Motley Fool recommends Verizon Communications and Warner Bros. Discovery, Inc. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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