The Monitor is a weekly column devoted to everything happening in the WIRED world of culture, from movies to memes, TV to Twitter.
Earlier this week, I typed the following in a moment of new-media pique:
Look, not to sound petty (this sounds petty), but I just want to watch Friends. And The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Hell, maybe even Zack Snyder’s cut of Justice League, if that ever comes out. But right now, I can’t. Why? Because both of my televisions use Roku streaming devices, and, as has been the case since its launch, HBO Max—the place where that programming lives—isn’t available on Roku. It’s just … not there. One day HBO Go just Keyser Söze-d out of my life and nothing showed up to replace it. My HBO streaming option was gone, and it took my spontaneous Sex and the City marathons with it. Thank fuck I own Deadwood on DVD.
As often happens in journalism, though, that story stopped being a story before I could smash the Publish button. That's because on Wednesday, Roku and WarnerMedia announced they'd finally come to an agreement to host HBO Max on Roku devices.
The move comes nearly six months after the streaming service's launch. That may not seem like very much time in the long arc of history, but during a pandemic that has left people stuck at home craving new content to stream, it's an eternity. It also comes after WarnerMedia had made deals to put HBO Max on nearly every other device, including the PlayStation 5. Even Amazon and WarnerMedia, which had been without a deal for more than five months, finally made an agreement to put the streaming service on Fire TV devices in November. And while, with all these devices already lined up, it may seem like Roku's absence isn't a big deal, please remember that Roku dominates nearly half of the connected TV market.
But now we all have HBO Max. Hooray! You probably have Wonder Woman to thank for that. Earlier this year, Warner Bros. announced it would release Wonder Woman 1984 on the streaming service on December 25, and even though the finer points of the deal weren't disclosed, reports indicated that WarnerMedia wanted to secure the Roku piece of the HBO Max puzzle before that date. It also seems possible the company wanted to lock in the deal before the start of 2021, during which Warner Bros. will be releasing its entire slate of films—including highly anticipated films like Dune and The Matrix 4—on HBO Max the same day they hit (a limited number of) theaters.
To be fair, though, the issue of not having every streaming service on every device wasn't a HBO-Max-and-Roku-specific problem. It’s more like one particular beachhead in the ongoing streaming wars. A couple years ago, the worry was that every media company would start its own streaming service and everyone would get nickel-and-dimed paying for monthly subscription fees. In the last 13 months, with the launch of Disney+, HBO Max, Apple TV+, and Peacock, that’s pretty much come to pass. But those launches were also accompanied by an ever growing prevalence of connected TVs and streaming devices, from Fire TV sticks to Chromecasts. Because each gadget and each platform has its own set of partners, it might not even be possible to have one single configuration that provides all the vitamins and minerals any one person needs to satisfy their media diet. (Peacock had similar issues with Amazon and Roku when it launched over the summer.) So we’re left improvising and compromising. Oh, and that doesn’t even factor in any one person’s gaming consoles of choice, which is a whole other nightmare.
But, I must confess: I already had HBO Max. At the end of the year, like a lot of people in 2020, I moved. In the process, I switched my internet and cable provider—another wildcard in the Great Streaming Gamble—from Verizon Fios to Spectrum, based on what was available in my new building. The new service offered an option at sign-up: I could choose a traditional cable box or an Apple TV equipped with the Spectrum streaming TV app. I went with the Apple TV, which has access to HBO Max. But for those keeping score, that meant that for the last few weeks, I'd been using an Apple device connected to a Roku television just to stream a TV show from the ’90s that, back when it debuted, used to arrive in people’s homes out of thin air. It’s nice having Friends back, but in this day and age, it’s really hard to know how long they’ll be there for you.