(Bloomberg) — For Matt Hershberger, HBO Max isn’t just a streaming service. It’s a babysitter.
Hershberger has two young kids, ages 1 and 3, and relies on the app to keep them entertained at home while he does chores and changes diapers. But lately, he said, HBO Max has been “a train wreck.” When he opens the app on his Roku, it typically crashes three times before successfully streaming an episode of “Sesame Street” or “Looney Tunes” — much to the frustration of his impatient toddler.
“Sometimes the sound goes way forward and the picture tries to catch up, then it crashes,” said Hershberger, 35, a librarian who lives in Red Bank, New Jersey. “It’s easily the worst app we’ve ever had on the Roku TV.”
Hershberger is not the only irritated customer. For months, subscribers have been complaining about HBO Max’s technical shortcomings, particularly on Roku — one of the most popular streaming device, with 54 million active accounts. A post in December on Roku’s community forum about how HBO Max freezes and crashes now stretches 37 pages long and is filled with more than 360 replies. Similar angry comments from HBO Max subscribers have flooded Twitter and Reddit.
HBO Max is hardly the first streaming service to run into such struggles. Building a flawless app is hard, if not impossible, in part because developers need to make the video work seamlessly on multiple platforms, said Dan Rayburn, a streaming media expert and principal analyst at Frost & Sullivan. Streaming outages sometimes happen when large numbers of viewers try to tune in to a live sporting event all at once. Just recently, users of Peacock, NBC’s streaming service, lost video and audio during a World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. event.
There’s no way to determine precisely how often streaming services crash, or whether HBO Max does so more than its peers, because media companies don’t release such data publicly, Rayburn said. Disruptions may be an inevitable part of the streaming era because the infrastructure of the internet is not as reliable as traditional television, he said.
“As consumers, we give up some reliability when it comes to streaming services, and there’s nothing we can do about it,” Rayburn said.
Still, the number of complaints online about HBO Max on Roku is notable, Rayburn said, and both companies appear to share some of the blame. HBO Max is responsible for the development of its app, he said, but “why is Roku allowing HBO Max on its system if it doesn’t meet the requirements of a good user experience?”
A Roku spokesman referred questions to HBO Max. A post on its community forum from someone identified as an employee suggests that users contact HBO Max if the other apps on their Roku are working properly.
“If we are doing our job, you won’t hear many people commenting on our tech. You want it to be so good that it just blends into the background.”
“For some of our subscribers, the HBO Max app experience on Roku devices isn’t at the quality level we want and our users expect,” Jason Press, global executive vice president of direct-to-consumer technology and program management at HBO Max’s parent, WarnerMedia, said in a statement. “We’re hard at work on resolving these issues and are focused on a set of releases that should address a number of the challenges some customers are facing. We’re committed to delivering the best possible experience to our users as quickly as we can.”
In a recent interview, Jason Kilar, chief executive officer of WarnerMedia, said he was aware of people complaining about glitches on Roku, adding, “We’re not perfect.”
“Obviously software development is one of those things where you are never done,” Kilar said. “We absolutely will get better and are getting better.”
Kilar said that he expects the negative feedback to disappear with time.
“If we are doing our job, you won’t hear many people commenting on our tech,” he said. “You want it to be so good that it just blends into the background.”
When HBO Max subscribers complain on Twitter, they often get a reply from its customer service account, @HBOMaxHelp. The account first suggests restarting the Roku device through its home settings, then running an internet speed test and sending an image of the results. If that doesn’t resolve the problem, it recommends checking for updates to the app.
When HBO Max launched in May 2020, it wasn’t initially available on Roku as the two sides argued over business terms. Seven months later, in December, Roku reached an agreement with WarnerMedia, part of AT&T Inc., to carry the app.
Andi Agardy, 46, who lives in Tennessee, decided to wait a few months to sign up for HBO Max to give the service time to work out the bugs on Roku’s platform. But she said the app still frequently freezes and crashes, forcing her Roku to restart.
She also subscribes to Netflix, Hulu and YouTube TV. But HBO Max, she said, “is the one I have the most problems with.”
“There are stretches where it’s absolutely fine, and there are stretches where I can’t watch anything,” said Agardy, who works for a content marketing company. “It’s really frustrating.”
Alyssa Miller, 44, who lives outside Milwaukee, said she has also noticed that HBO Max takes a longer time to load than Netflix, Amazon Prime Video or Hulu.
“The app is exceptionally slow,” said Miller, who works in cyber security. “It doesn’t matter if I’m on Roku or my phone or my laptop, it takes forever.”
Once she selects a show, she said she rarely gets through an episode without a problem.
“It’s really clunky,” she said.
Despite the problems, HBO Max is growing. On July 22, AT&T said that during the second quarter HBO Max and HBO added 2.8 million U.S. subscribers for a total of 47 million. WarnerMedia has been on a hot streak creatively, with shows like “Hacks” and “Mare of Easttown” garnering Emmy nominations.
Annoyed HBO Max subscribers say they’re torn between a desire to see the acclaimed shows and the headaches of constantly restarting the app. Hershberger said he isn’t canceling HBO Max because he gets it free through an AT&T wireless subscription. Miller said she has considered canceling HBO Max and consuming the old HBO shows that she watches, such as “The Sopranos,” “Oz” and “Six Feet Under,” via DVDs. Agardy said she still subscribes because she’s excited about new shows, such as “The White Lotus.”
“But there comes a point where you ask, ‘Is the enjoyment I’m getting out of this worth the hassle?’” she said.
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