Over the past year, Warner Bros. Discovery’s treatment of Warner properties, especially with HBO Max, has been in a state of turmoil. We’ve seen finished movies shelved for tax write-offs; major content removed from HBO Max with little or no warning; vague plans announced to merge HBO Max with Discovery+, and so on.
Bugs Bunny, Fred Flintstone, “Westworld” the latest HBO Max purges
The latest HBO Max antics, as of this writing? Removing half of the Looney Tunes shorts (and half of “The Flintstones”) from the service. Unfortunately, these shorts include everything from about 1950 onwards, which was the high point of the series. As such, gone from HBO Max: “What’s Opera Doc?”; the “duck season/rabbit season” trilogy; “Knighty Knight Bugs” (Bugs Bunny’s Oscar-winning short); “Birds Anonymous” (another Oscar-winning short, starring Sylvester and Tweety); and so on. Also missing are several major Looney Tunes characters: all of Taz’s shorts are gone (since Taz debuted in 1954), as well as all Road Runner/Wile E. Coyote shorts save their 1949 debut.
In the Flintstones’ case, seasons 4-6 are gone; that includes every appearance by Bamm-Bamm Rubble, who debuted in season 4. (Also gone are all of the Great Gazoo’s appearances, for those who care.)
Fortunately, all of the removed cartoons are still available on Boomerang (and Tubi in “The Flintstones”’s case). The Looney Tunes shorts on Boomerang are mostly older prints (versus the HBO Max restored ones), however.
What feels particularly obnoxious about all of this is it’s the Looney Tunes, one of Warner Brothers’ core properties—the one thing I’d expect to be on HBO Max, no matter what. Removing them for (basically) penny-pinching austerity reasons feels like the equivalent of selling a family heirloom at a yard sale.
While I mostly focus on cartoons, live-action shows are also facing WB Discovery’s axe. HBO Max removed “Westworld” recently, along with other shows. Supposedly “Westworld” and some other programming will go to a free ad-supported streaming TV (FAST) platform, such as the Roku Channel or Tubi. While WB Discovery’s relying on licensing revenue, it still seems odd: “so instead of paying cash-desperate WB Discovery for HBO Max (one of the most expensive streaming services), I can just use a free/cheaper rival service instead, one I might already pay for? Nice!”
HBO Max’s current status and future
All of this feels like quite a decline in stature for HBO Max. While HBO Max has had problems starting with launch day in 2020, it eventually fixed most of its flaws. Until recently, I’d have put it as a service that could be used as a replacement for Netflix (which is now going through its own problems).
However, with few exceptions, WB Discovery’s leadership clearly views HBO Max as just an extension of HBO the cable channel: a service for live-action, realistic, adult-oriented programming, plus some Discovery reality shows tacked on. If you like “Game of Thrones,” “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “90 Day Fiancé,” or the DC superheroes, then you’ll be fine. However, if you like the more esoteric HBO Max programming, niche genres, or Warner’s non-adult animated fare, then you might want to start considering alternatives.
A list of alternatives to HBO Max
Below I list some possible alternatives to HBO Max.
Despite Netflix’s own problems, they’re still the biggest streaming service around, with a wide variety of content. While Netflix doesn’t have decades-running franchises like the Looney Tunes, Superman, or Batman, it does carry a lot of animated fare, as well as most genres (from dramas to sci-fi to reality shows). If you don’t need a specific WB franchise, and are OK with paying HBO Max-level prices, Netflix will still work fine for most people.
Disney+ and Hulu
Warner Brothers’ longtime rival, Disney, has done a much better job handling its own streaming service, Disney+. Since Disney+ launched in 2019 (a year before HBO Max), it’s grown to become the third-biggest streaming service, after Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.
Among other advantages, Disney+ is: aimed at more general audiences than HBO Max’s adult focus; has gone out of its way to carry as much of the Disney library as possible; and offers a variety of franchises, from “Star Wars” to Pixar.
Disney+ also places a big emphasis on animation, since animation is a fundamental hallmark of the studio. This might sum up the major difference between Disney and Warner Brothers. While animation’s also a big part of the latter’s history and catalog, Warner’s execs seem to ultimately view Looney Tunes, Cartoon Network’s shows, etc. as “just cartoons.”
Hulu also has been a longstanding streaming service. Along with its variety of material, it also offers more adult fare than what’s on Disney+. As such, getting the two bundled together might be a better buy. The libraries of Disney+ and Hulu combined are almost the same size as a combined HBO Max/Discovery+.
Paramount+ and Showtime
Paramount now offers Paramount+ and Showtime as a combined bundle; as of this writing, it’s $12/mo. for Paramount+ with ads, or $15/mo. ad-free.
Showtime, of course, is HBO’s longtime rival premium cable channel; while HBO easily eclipses Showtime in popularity, Showtime still has some fans. Prominent Showtime shows include “The L Word” (both the original and its reboot), “Dexter,” and the original “Queer as Folk.”
Paramount+, meanwhile, hasn’t been as prominent as Netflix or HBO Max. However, it does have a decent variety of programming from the Viacom/CBS libraries, from Nickelodeon to “Star Trek.” Overall, it’s not a “Netflix killer,” but works fine as a secondary service.
As such, the Paramount+/Showtime bundle should offer a similar variety and amount of fare as HBO Max, from kids’ shows to adult programming.
Amazon Prime Video
Prime Video is the other major longtime streaming service. While it doesn’t have as many major franchises, it does offer a “Lord of the Rings” TV series, for those that want a fantasy show like “Game of Thrones.” (I know, they’re quite different in tone, etc.)
Prime Video also has the advantage of being bundled with other Prime features, including free two-day shipping, for the same price as what HBO Max runs.
For fans of older (pre-Cartoon Network) Warners animation, Boomerang still exists. While it’s basically been neglected by Warner Brothers for the past several years, it still has the major Looney Tunes and Hanna-Barbera back catalog, and all ad-free. It’s also (as of this writing) the only way to legally stream almost all of the post-1940s Looney Tunes shorts removed from HBO Max. Finally, Boomerang has a large amount of material that never made it to HBO Max (“Camp Lazlo,” “Atom Ant,” “Jonny Quest,” etc.).
The downsides of Boomerang? It costs $6/month (or $45/year), which for some might be a bit much to pay for a service that’s all reruns (and hasn’t added any material in several years). The Looney Tunes prints on the service also are mostly older ones, versus the remastered ones made for HBO Max. Finally, there’s the lingering fear that WB Discovery’s execs might remember Boomerang exists and undermine (or shutter) it the way they’ve done with HBO Max.
Buy physical media
Finally, there’s going old-school and returning to buying your favorite shows on physical media, i.e. DVDs and Blu-rays.
I’ve written before about such, but the advantages of DVDs and Blu-rays include:
- Owning your favorite TV shows/movies outright.
- Being free of interference from the material’s corporate owners.
- Not needing to pay a monthly bill.
- Less obnoxious digital rights management (DRM).
- Possibly better picture/sound quality versus streaming.
- Possibly cheaper than buying the material digitally.
The downsides? For starters, it’s less convenient to mess with discs than just firing up an app. There’s also not having a digital file to play on modern devices, unless one rips the disc. (That said, ripping, besides still treated as a legal gray area, is beyond most people’s tech skills). There’s also the decline in physical media sales, leading to many TV shows either only getting a DVD release (even if the shows were originally made/aired in HD) or not getting a physical release at all. Finally, some DVDs/Blu-rays have gone out of print, or cost more than their respective streaming/digital video counterparts.
While HBO Max is slated to merge with Discovery+ later in 2023, it’s clearly already changed, and not for the better. For myself, HBO Max has gone from being a possible Netflix replacement to, at best, just being a service to binge for a month or so and then cancel. Still, I could always just rent Warner Brothers’ latest TV shows/movies instead.
At this point, I can only recommend HBO Max as an ongoing monthly service for:
- Fans of HBO programming.
- Hardcore DC Comics fans.
- Hardcore Cartoon Network/Adult Swim fans.
- Warner Brothers movie library fans (but again, DVDs/Blu-rays can fill a similar role).
Otherwise, if you don’t fit any of the above, you’re better off sticking with Netflix, or one of the other alternatives I listed above.
In my case, I think I’ll be better off with a mix of buying material on DVD/Blu-ray and using other streaming services that carry Warners content (Boomerang, Tubi, Hulu, etc.). If WB Discovery’s new reality show-making owners are determined to reduce HBO Max to being little more than “HBO-the-cable-channel with reality shows tacked on,” at least I won’t be on the hook for paying $15/month.
Image from HBO Max main page. (HBO Max / screenshot by author)