The inevitable has happened. Roku (ROKU 2.66%) has come to terms with AT&T's (T -1.00%) HBO Max. The fledgling premium streaming service is now available on Roku, the last of the major platforms that wasn't carrying HBO Max.
Thursday's debut of HBO Max on Roku came after what was reportedly months of negotiations, and this is good news for both parties. Roku is no longer at risk of losing any users because it's lacking access to an app that will only grow more popular in 2021. Roku shares were hitting all-time highs in Wednesday's after-hours trading following the news.
AT&T also comes out ahead. HBO Max now has one less barrier to succeeding, and a big one at that given Roku's 46 million active accounts. Both publicly traded companies are better off with a deal in place, but the stakes weren't the same. AT&T's HBO Max had a lot more to lose.
Let's make a deal
AT&T has sacrificed a lot to make HBO Max happen. The upgrade to its original HBO app hasn't gained as much traction as expected. Despite offering enhanced content that isn't available on the original HBO channel or app, the vast majority of its paying customers haven't made the leap to HBO Max, even with its availability at no additional cost.
AT&T had just 8.6 million HBO Max activations by the end of September, less than 23% of the 38 million HBO subscribers with access to the upgraded platform. AT&T has been beefing up its efforts. It's actively promoting HBO Max as a free benefit to select wireless customers. Every film that AT&T's WarnerMedia division was supposed to hit theaters between now and the end of next year will also be available on HBO Max the same day it hits the box office.
There's a lot riding on HBO Max, and AT&T was struggling to give it away this summer. Disney (DIS 0.84%) is hitting new highs on the success of its one-year-old service, despite the deep shortcomings elsewhere at the iconic media stock. If HBO Max had 86.8 million subscribers the way Disney+ does -- and not just a tenth as many -- you can be sure that AT&T's stock wouldn't be trading closer to its 52-week low than its 52-week high right now.
Roku won't catapult HBO Max to the ranks of streaming elite. The $14.99 price point for HBO Max is a stickler as the priciest of the premium video services. It has a strong catalog of critically acclaimed shows that served it well in the days of linear television, but it has yet to master the cadence of perpetual head-turning releases necessary to succeed in the new world.
However, Roku will give it a better chance. Roku's audience has grown by 43% over the past year -- and these are diehard binge viewers spending an average roughly three and a half hours a day on the platform. Roku was growing just fine without HBO Max, but the same can't be said the other way around. Roku stock is moving higher on the HBO Max news, but AT&T is the one that finally has a chance to win a fight for viewers that it was losing.