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Popular titles are vanishing from HBO Max after merger

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

TV fans may notice some of their favorite shows disappearing from streaming services with little notice. The newly merged Warner Brothers Discovery revealed this week that well-known titles like "Westworld" and "The Time Traveler's Wife" would be removed from HBO Max. This has upset fans who are used to the idea of being able to watch what they want when they want. So we decided to ask NPR TV critic Eric Deggans what's going on here. Eric, thanks so much for joining us.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Sure.

MARTIN: So what is going on here? I want to point out, like, HBO has already paid to make these shows, right?

DEGGANS: Yeah.

MARTIN: And they have subscribers who seem to love watching them, right?

DEGGANS: Yeah. Yeah.

MARTIN: So what's going on?

DEGGANS: So this is all about cutting costs. First, a little backstory. HBO Max is owned by Warner Brothers Discovery. And you might remember that that company came together earlier this year when AT&T spun off WarnerMedia and it merged with Discovery. So this new company took on $50 billion - with a B - in debt. And they have spent much of the year cutting costs. They had layoffs at CNN. They shelved a nearly completed Batgirl movie and some other things.

MARTIN: So, OK, but how does this relate to these shows leaving HBO Max? Because, as I said, I think they already spent the money to make them, right?

DEGGANS: (Laughter) This is where it gets a little complicated because it's about these special tax breaks that these companies can take in the immediate aftermath of a merger. So the company expects to write off something up to $3.5 billion connected to content costs as a result. And part of getting that tax benefit means they have to pull some of these shows from the service, including "Westworld," "The Nevers," "The Time Traveler's Wife" and a few more.

MARTIN: So will people still be able to see these shows anywhere? Like, so, like, what if you're in the middle, you know, of a season, for example?

DEGGANS: (Laughter) Well, you better start watching faster.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: OK.

DEGGANS: Well, you know, Warner Brothers Discovery announced that these shows that I just mentioned and a few others, they're actually going to license them to other companies, separate companies that offer their content streaming free with ads. You know, it might be a company like Tubi or Pluto TV. We don't know the specific ones yet, but that's their plan. And then some of these - some other HBO shows, like HBO Max's first original series "Love Life" and the show "The Gordita Chronicles," those may be licensed to some other streaming service by the studios that made them. But we don't know exactly what's going to happen with them. Some shows were actually HBO shows that were made available on the HBO Max streaming service. That's "Westworld," for example. And if you have an HBO subscription, you should be able to watch it on demand, for example, HBO on demand through your cable provider. And Warner Brothers Discovery says it's going to start its own free ad-supported streaming service next year just to make things even more confusing.

MARTIN: So I'm wondering, since these shows are so identified with HBO or HBO, Max, how did the company's thinking factor into this? I mean, could this backfire? Could this sort of alienate the people that they need to actually support the service?

DEGGANS: I mean, it seems like it's a danger. Clearly, they've calculated that the shows - the specific shows they're removing may not be popular enough. I mean, they don't release publicly viewership data very much. But to see a show like "Westworld" that, you know, was a flagship show for HBO for a while and considered a hit, to see that shelved just for some tax money, I think that's going to hit consumers a little differently.

MARTIN: And are there any other effects like creators, for example?

DEGGANS: Right.

MARTIN: Right? I mean, could it have an effect there?

DEGGANS: Exactly. I think one of the things that Warner Brothers Discovery is not paying enough attention to is how this looks to Hollywood and the show creators who make up a big part of the creative community. In the past, HBO succeeded by becoming known as a great place for creators to work. And so now they're in a situation where they create a show and they don't know what's going to happen to it once it's been created and the episodes have kind of hit the public. And this move could also dilute the HBO brand. Content made for HBO that appears on some other place like Pluto TV or something like that, you know, HBO used to resist that and in particular resist placing it in places where there would be commercials inserted inside of it.

MARTIN: Well, remember the advertising slogan that they had was that it's not television, it's HBO or something like that? Remember that?

DEGGANS: Exactly. You know, this move just feels counter to a long history within HBO of trying to keep things on their platforms and keep commercials out of them. And then finally, you know, it puts Warner Brothers Discovery in this position where it seems like all they're doing is cutting back. All they're doing is laying off people, canceling shows, shutting down streaming services like CNN+. And that doesn't sound like a fun entertainment brand that you want to spend time with.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, Eric, does this suggest like a bigger story, like a restructuring in the streaming industry in general? I mean, you've already pointed to the fact that streaming has changed our behavior. You know, people are used to treating streaming services like the way we treat books, right? You buy it, it sits there. You read it when you want to read it. So do you think that this suggests that something fundamental about this business is changing?

DEGGANS: Well, in terms of what you're talking about, I'm not sure. I mean, you know, there's a reason why they call their lineup of programming a library, right? But I think what we saw this year was streaming moved from its infancy, where these big media companies were just throwing all kinds of money at these platforms to get them established. Now we're in the adolescence, where there's less money to go around. And they're going to have to make some tough choices. I mean, even Netflix, which when it started, was famous for not canceling shows, has angered some fans by canceling some shows that people like.

Netflix, Disney+, Apple TV+, they all will raise their prices this year. And Warner Brothers Discovery is expected to reveal plans for this mega streaming service next year that's going to bring together HBO Max and Discovery+. And that may cost more than HBO Max, which is already one of the more expensive streaming options I think right now for ad-free service, it costs about 14.99 a month. So what consumers like most about streaming is the ability to get exactly what they want, exactly when and how they want. And I think the more that media companies mess with that equation to try and save costs or make a profit, that's the more that they risk losing their subscriber support.

MARTIN: That is NPR TV critic Eric Deggans. Eric, thanks so much for breaking all this down for us.

DEGGANS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.