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Trump–Biden face-off highlights Max’s emphasis on live coverage

A connected TV features various pins sticking into its screen, with an American flag on each one.

Illustration by Dave Cole / Getty / Shutterstock / The Current

Max has a mission to bring content to the masses. But instead of just offering on-demand content, the company has been building out its live capabilities to rival what cable viewers see on their screens with the hopes of boosting subscribers — and potentially advertising dollars.

“Our focus was to make sure that we are, at a minimum, [on] par with TV quality, but more in broadcast quality,” says Sudheer Sirivara, Warner Bros. Discovery executive vice president of global technology.

In a strategic move toward livestreaming, Warner Bros. Discovery’s Max is betting big on news and sports as the cornerstone of its live-content strategy. With the launch of the Bleacher Report Sports add-on last year — home to many games and matches, including the NBA Playoffs, the NHL Finals, the MLB games and the 2025 Men’s NCAA tournament — and the recent high-profile streaming of the Trump—Biden presidential debate, Max is positioning itself as a competitor in the live-content arena.

“We've been trying to continue the path of innovation around driving better and better, better experiences around live going forward,” Sirivara says.

On June 27, CNN Max was the streaming home for the debate between President Joe Biden and former President Donald J. Trump. The debate drew in 47.9 million viewers across all of Warner Bros. Discovery’s platforms. While the company did not break out streaming numbers specifically, it said the debate was the largest audience for streaming service CNN Max. It doubled its previous record, which was on New Year’s Eve.

As Election Day nears, the platform sees the same simultaneous live capabilities developed for sports as useful for up-to-date coverage, especially on election race days.

Live content is streamed in ultra-high quality —1080p 60 frames per second, technically speaking. It also has a lower latency or delay than typical streaming providers due to the fact the company owns the broadcast rights through CNN.

“When it comes to elections or breaking news, you pretty much treat it like a live event because at the end of the day, it’s live,” Sirivara says. “The same ethos and principles that we have around delivering ‘low latency, high quality’ applies to news as well.”

Max has reached 99.6 million subscribers globally as of May, adding an additional 2 million since the end of last year. The company also announced a plan to bundle its service with rival Disney’s Hulu and Disney+ in the summer in a bid to grow its base. Streaming high-quality live content, it hopes may give it that needed edge. 

“It’s probably the splashiest way to bring in a new customer, because your shows like Game of Thrones or Squid Game are so few and far between,” says Ross Benes, senior analyst at Emarketer.

“It's a sure thing that if you’re getting the NBA, there are fans of that who are going to come. It's a little more predictable than I think content production is.” 

With existing broadcast partnerships, Max has the ability to get some of those high-profile games and content at a lower cost than its competitors, Benes pointed out. The larger subscriber base will also allow Warner Bros. Discovery to go to advertisers with a better audience size. During its upfronts, the company announced it fully merged Warner Bros. and Discovery’s ad tech stacks under a program called “One WBD” as well as launched a first-party data platform named Olli. One of its new ad products helps marketers optimize campaigns across linear TV and streaming using Olli’s capabilities, which could come in handy for live events. While many other streamers have to bid for those rights, WBD can just simultaneously stream the linear coverage on Max without adding costs.

Max’s numbers still pale in comparison to the 269.9 million paid global subscribers Netflix has, at a time when many consumers are deciding where they can trim budgets. Deloitte discovered in their Digital Media Trends 2024 study that the average U.S. consumer spends $61 on streaming subscriptions, and only subscribes to 4. As of June 4, Max raised its prices by $1 a month for its ad-free and ultimate-ad-free plans, to $17 per month and $21 per month, respectively, while its ad-supported plan remained the same at $10 per month. Max had initially planned to charge an additional $10 for its sports content, but that program has been delayed, according to Variety.

With sports and news content its focus, live content could be a boon for Max both in terms of subscription revenue and advertiser interest. In September 2020, the first presidential debate between Trump and Biden drew in 73.1 million viewers, making it the third-most-watched presidential debate in history. That year was also CNN’s most-viewed year to date, thanks to the strength of its pandemic and political coverage. It’s hoping to ride this wave in the 2024 election cycle.

“When it comes to CNN and HBO, they are both on Max, and we position the opportunity for the advertisers to advertise on both of these platforms,” Warner Bros. Discovery’s Sirivara says. “But especially within the Max context, you will have an ability to monetize either on a livestream like with CNN or for on demand assets, like House of the Dragon or Game of Thrones."

Max is also home to the exclusive 2024 Olympics streaming rights in Europe, although the U.S. rights belong to NBCUniversal and its streaming platform Peacock. Warner Bros, Discovery is also dialing up its capabilities to livestream multiple events simultaneously for the Paris Olympics.

“Looking across the regions where we have launched Max, the value of live content is incredibly apparent,” says Pato Spagnoletto, Warner Bros. Discovery DTC chief marketing officer. “Our team has delivered the highest-quality NCAA March Madness in the U.S., Champions League in Mexico and Brazil, and Roland-Garros — with the Paris Olympics soon to follow — in Europe. The ability to deliver such high-profile sporting events is of incredible value to our subscribers.”

But with TNT’s NBA deal currently being negotiated past the 2025 season, Maxmay lose one of its biggest draws.

“You could put all the live programming you want on Max — it’ll give them a little bit bigger audience to sell and advertising,” Emarketer’s Benes says. “They’re going to lose their biggest property, most likely, so middle-of-the-week MLB games and NHL [will be their biggest draws].”

And with CNBC reporting that NBA rights could go for $76 billion or more, it could be too much for any platform to become the sole livestreaming leader.

Despite challenges, Warner Bros. Discovery remains optimistic about Max's future.

As it builds its strategy for delivering high-quality live sports and news coverage, Max aims to meet the rising demand for real-time content capturing the attention of those looking for the latest election shenanigans, while getting them to stick around for the next season of The White Lotus.