Late on the Sunday night of Memorial Day weekend, WarnerMedia did the unthinkable: they disappointed my mother.
At precisely 10:09 p.m. ET, the following text flashed across my phone screen “Omg. HBO is down! Too many people trying to watch Mare”
Sure enough, the anticipated finale for crime drama Mare of Easttown was not loading on the WarnerMedia streaming service HBO Max and it would remain inaccessible for around 25 minutes. The Internet reacted with disappointment similar to Mother Bojalad.
Thankfully, HBO Max got itself into fighting shape and Mare of Easttown was eventually available to stream. Viewers got to see the shocking conclusion to the Kate Winslet miniseries. The outage, however, bodes ominously for streaming television’s future.
Sometimes things break on the Internet. The World Wide Web is a sophisticated, sensitive beast spawned from Transatlantic cables, millions of computers and servers, and just a dash of imagination. Longtime Internet users have grown accustomed to the occasionally imperfect nature of the medium. Occasionally things fall apart, the servers cannot hold. But outages and imperfections in our streaming enterprises cannot remain the status quo now that real money is involved.
Just about every major media conglomerate has made clear that the future of television (and in some sad cases, movies as well) will be streamed. Netflix leads the pack with 208 million subscribers worldwide. It’s followed by Amazon Prime Video (175 million), Tencent (123 million), iQIYI (119 million), and Disney+ (103 million). That’s nearly three-quarters of a billion people subscribing to just five streaming services (granted, the number is undoubtedly smaller as people subscribe to several streamers).
According to a recent study conducted by three major media companies, 25 million U.S. households are expected to cancel their cable subscriptions within the next five years in favor of streaming. That number is on top of the 25 million U.S. households that have already cut the cord. Streaming will soon be the norm, if it’s not already. And that all makes it a bit strange that some streamers don’t seem fully prepared to handle the technical burden of all that incoming traffic.
In HBO Max’s case with the Mare of Easttown finale, it wasn’t technically that much traffic to begin with. WarnerMedia’s streaming service held up just fine for big cinematic releases like Wonder Woman 1984 and Zack Snyder’s Justice League. Though viewership numbers in the streaming world remain unreliable, it makes sense that those big IPs would garner more total viewers than an HBO crime drama. Last week’s penultimate Mare garnered roughly 1.2 million viewers, which is excellent for pay cable but not an insurmountable technical challenge.
The issue likely lies in the way that we’ve traditionally watched television. For nearly the entirety of the medium’s existence, popular TV shows were appointment viewing. A viewer must be on their couch to watch an episode at a precise time or risk never seeing it again. In the streaming world, timeliness doesn’t matter as much anymore, with many viewers happy to watch a show whenever they get around to it. In fact, streamers like Netflix and Hulu just unceremoniously drop their new content at 12:01 a.m. PT.
Since Mare of Easttown was an HBO series that airs on terrestrial television as well, many streamers wanted to watch right at 10 p.m. so as to not get left behind. Unfortunately, it would seem as though that much traffic targeted at one moment was too much for HBO Max’s servers to bear.
With WarnerMedia still trying to bridge the streaming and traditional TV worlds gap through HBO and HBO Max, that kind of delay just shouldn’t be happening with streaming enterprises anymore. What’s more is that Warner and HBO have gone all in on the Game of Thrones prequel train, having commissioned no fewer than six spinoffs to the network’s titanic hit. Once those start rolling out of the gate, HBO Max can’t afford to be caught with its streaming pants down.
Ironically, reinforcements for HBO Max’s technical issues might be on the way thanks to a traditionally cable-focused company. AT&T recently admitted defeat in its stewardship of WarnerMedia and spun the company off into a merger with Discovery, Inc. Though Discovery is best known as a major cable player, the launch of its bespoke discovery+ streaming app went off without a hitch earlier this year.
With the combined powers of WarnerMedia and Discovery, perhaps the next appointment-viewing HBO crime drama won’t disappoint my mom.