HBO Max had an excellent 2021 – but 2022 may not be so rosy

Timothée Chalamet in Dune
(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

WarnerMedia owner AT&T has published up-to-date subscriber figures for its premium cable channel, HBO, and streaming service, HBO Max – and both platforms appear in rude health. 

As part of the company’s recent regulatory filing, AT&T revealed that its HBO portfolio surpassed a year-end goal of 73.8 million combined subscribers in December 2021.

Given that WarnerMedia opted to remove HBO (the channel, not the streamer) from Amazon’s Prime Video Channels selection at the beginning of last year – in an effort to drive more subscribers to HBO Max – those figures represent promising growth. 

But HBO bosses shouldn't blow the party poppers just yet. For starters, AT&T’s figures don’t distinguish between HBO and HBO Max, making it difficult to determine which service drew in the lion’s share of their combined audience. 

A spokesperson for WarnerMedia recently told The Verge that these distinctions would be “broken out [...] in a couple of weeks,” but at present it’s hard to make too many bold claims regarding the success of HBO Max, specifically. 

Still, working on the assumption that HBO Max did have a great 2021 – as we anticipate future data will reveal – it’s worth remembering that the pandemic undoubtedly played a role in driving new subscribers to the streamer.

Warner’s day-and-date release schedule meant recent blockbusters like The Suicide Squad, The Matrix Resurrections and Denis Villeneuve’s Dune were made available to watch on HBO Max the same day (or the day after) as their respective theatrical releases, making the service a hotter property than it otherwise might have been in 2021. 

watch Mortal Kombat online

Day-and-date releases like Mortal Kombat likely impacted the streamer's subscriber numbers in 2021 (Image credit: Warner Bros)

Given that cinemas are likely to remain open en masse in 2022 (though the Omicron variant continues to cast doubt on any permanent return to normality), Warner won’t be continuing with any sort of day-and-date schedule moving forward. 

Upcoming tentpole movies like The Batman will still become available to stream on HBO Max, but only after a 45-day exclusive theatrical run. 

That means the service is unlikely to benefit from a similar injection of subscribers this year, because HBO Max won’t be offering the same immediate access to the biggest releases. 

TV shows are, of course, a different story – but many of HBO’s biggest hits in recent months (like Friends: The Reunion and Harry Potter: Return to Hogwarts) also represent one-off specials. It will be up to future seasons of Succession and brand new series like House of the Dragon and The Last of Us, then, to do most of the heavy lifting for HBO Max in the coming year.  

Still second (or third) fiddle 

What’s more, HBO’s growth appears less impressive when stacked up alongside equivalent figures posted by Disney Plus and Netflix in 2021. 

The former, which launched around six months before HBO Max, boasted 118.1 million paid subscribers as of October last year, up from 73.7 million in 2020. 

Netflix, on the other hand, reported an almighty 214 million paid subscribers as of Q3 2021 – with that figure expected to further inflate in Q4 thanks to the meteoric success of Squid Game.

Evidently, HBO Max has a job on its hands in 2022. The platform's rollout across Europe should help to build its subscriber based further but, with even more competition arriving in the form of Paramount Plus (a Halo TV show, anyone?) and Pluto TV, HBO's streamer will need to work hard to convince potential customers to part with yet more of their hard-earned cash.

Axel Metz
Senior Staff Writer

Axel is a London-based Senior Staff Writer at TechRadar, reporting on everything from the latest Apple developments to newest movies as part of the site's daily news output. Having previously written for publications including Esquire and FourFourTwo, Axel is well-versed in the applications of technology beyond the desktop, and his coverage extends from general reporting and analysis to in-depth interviews and opinion. 

Axel studied for a degree in English Literature at the University of Warwick before joining TechRadar in 2020, where he then earned an NCTJ qualification as part of the company’s inaugural digital training scheme.