The Close Up: HBO Max’s Jennifer O’Connell talks “buzzy” non-scripted

While it may be buoyed by the HBO brand, WarnerMedia’s just launched streamer HBO Max is charting its own course. The direct-to-consumer service rolled out May 27 with a roster of ...
June 5, 2020

While it may be buoyed by the HBO brand, WarnerMedia’s just launched streamer HBO Max is charting its own course.

The direct-to-consumer service rolled out May 27 with a roster of unscripted series and documentaries, from underground ballroom dance competition format Legendary to Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s Sundance-premiering film On the Record.

HBO Max is just the most recent player to enter the so-called “streaming wars,” joining the likes of other nascent entrants such as Disney+, NBCUniversal’s Peacock and mobile-first platform Quibi.

“We don’t like to call it a streaming war because we do feel like there is plenty of room and that there isn’t a winner-takes-all dynamic happening,” Jennifer O’Connell, EVP of original non-fiction and kids programming, tells Realscreen.

O’Connell — a former Lionsgate executive who joined AT&T-owned WarnerMedia in May 2019 — talked with Realscreen about creating franchise content, HBO Max’s “aggressive” approach in the unscripted and documentary space and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

What weight does the HBO brand carry for this service, particularly in the documentary space, when it comes to cutting through the clutter of everything out there now?

“Some of our stuff might be younger skewing, some of our stuff might be a little bit more female; we are really looking at what HBO as a brand brings to the table and then we’re looking to see where we can complement… We are very much in the documentary business, looking for feature length docs… We are also doing multi-part documentaries, and have a few very buzzy, very noisy ones within. Everyone wants to know where their next Tiger King is coming from.”

What role will unscripted content play in HBO Max’s slate?

“There is a ton of weight on unscripted… We’re doing dating, we’re doing social experiments, we have competition shows, we have really big competition shows… That is an area that, for example, our colleagues at HBO, they are not necessarily in that space so deeply, so it’s very rich, very fertile ground for us to dig into.”

Do you see a bigger appetite for that unscripted and documentary content among platforms and audiences?

“From the start we’ve been pretty aggressive in that space and it’s interesting because it does feel like in the last couple of months there have been a lot of breakouts. I think there’s a lot of buzz in our world and it’s coming from reality style shows and documentaries. If anything it’s only reinforced what we’ve already been planning to do… I think there is an openness and an appetite for finding shows that are slightly off center, which is exactly what I love to do. I think it’s a very exciting time for this genre.”

How is the COVID-19 pandemic impacting HBO Max?

“We have been working with our production partners from the second it felt like this could have an impact, and continued to work with them to figure out, how can we support them? How can we be safe? How can we shut down but not lose the sense that we’re all going to bounce back from this?

We are putting a lot of plans in place to make sure that we can keep our content supply going.”

What are your immediate future goals for HBO Max?

“On the reality front, what can we turn into a franchise and maybe do spin offs? Then on the documentary side, what is going to get noticed?

You want to be in a room with all different age groups, all different backgrounds and the one thing they have in common is, ‘Did you see that this weekend?’ Or, ‘Did you watch the first couple episodes? I can’t wait for the next one.’ That is what I live for, to be part of that water cooler conversation.” 

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