After Deliberately Leaving Sports And CNN Out Of Its Max Rebrand Event, What Does Warner Bros Discovery Have Up Its Streaming Sleeve?

Although an introductory video at Wednesday’s Warner Bros Discovery streaming event included clips of NBA star LeBron James and CNN host Anderson Cooper, the rest of the presentation was strikingly sports- and news-free.

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CEO David Zaslav said the omissions were entirely intentional. Sports and news are “vibrant parts” of the company that “will be key to our long-term streaming strategy,” Zaslav said in his opening remarks. “In a few months,” he added, “we’ll come back to you with details of our attack plan to use this important and differentiating live content to grow our streaming business even further.”

Plans for harnessing the power of live programming can take a while to come together, as media rivals like Disney, NBCUniversal and Paramount Global have discovered in their respective streaming adventures. The equation has many variables, including a declining but still lucrative pay-TV ecosystem, a frothy market for sports rights with a number of hungry tech players throwing cash around.

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As a general entertainment streaming service, WBD’s rebranded Max is never likely to lean heavily toward live news and sports, but there has long been an inclination to try. Randall Stephenson, former CEO of AT&T, promised Wall Street in 2019 that those categories would be part of HBO Max when its then-subsidiary WarnerMedia was working toward launch. Jason Kilar, the former Amazon exec and founding chief of Hulu who became CEO of WarnerMedia in 2020, was steadfastly committed to CNN’s streaming potential, so much so that he carried on with the launch of CNN+ in 2022 even as the merger of WarnerMedia and Discovery was in the final stages of closing. Once Zaslav and his team were officially in charge of the merged company, one of their first moves was shuttering the service after just a few weeks, at a loss of tens of millions.

Rather than any kind of successor to CNN+ as a stand-alone, programming is most likely to migrate to Max, but it is a painstaking process to settle how much of it can stream exclusively. As Major League Soccer’s deal with Apple has shown, leagues are pushing to control more of their streaming rights in the future. From WBD’s end, its tentative approach to onboarding sports and news to Max is not unexpected, given the cash flow generated in pay-TV by its networks. The TNT and TBS apps, which require a pay-TV subscription, contribute to hundreds of millions in authenticated streaming ad revenue, making a transition to direct-to-consumer streaming far from a pain-free exercise.

Pressed on the topic during an interview on CNBC after the streaming event, Zaslav once again demurred. The company is also facing a looming renewal decision on NBA rights, which are likely to cost billions to reup. “The future has a lot of uncertainty for all of us,” the exec said. “We’re trying to figure out exactly what consumers want and when do they want it.”

When WarnerMedia inked a multi-year deal for NHL rights prior to the merger with Discovery, HBO Max was included as a distribution platform, though games thus far have aired only on linear TV.

“We are building an attack strategy,” Zaslav vowed. “You will see news and sports deployed to drive our overall streaming domestically and around the world.”

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