It’s telling that, when trying to analyze the current PR and talent disasters surrounding HBO Max, you have to start by getting specific about which one you mean. Are you talking about the destruction of almost fully completed films, suddenly transformed from creative works into mere tax write-offs at the stroke of incoming CEO David Zaslav’s pen? The numerous layoffs afflicting the employees at the relevant streaming services as Warner Media and Discovery shed copious blood while jamming themselves together into an unholy new media conglomerate? The optical trainwreck of taking swipes at the Sesame Street archives, which HBO made a lot of noise about treating as sacrosanct when they acquired the show seven years ago?
But when looking, simply, for the largest number of well-loved pieces of art now being treated as little more than hard-used playthings by this big, multibillion-dollar baby, it’s hard to get more apocalyptic than Zaslav’s treatment of HBO Max’s kids and animated programs. Over the last two weeks—and framed as part of Zaslav’s efforts to cut $3 billion out of HBO Max’s operating budget before it merges with Discovery+—the service has slashed almost 40 shows from its streaming roster. The vast majority of these shows weren’t licensed series that the service had to pay outside parties for; with a few exceptions, these were HBO Max originals, and the money-saving here appears to be primarily focused on residuals going out to the people who created these series.
Said creators have been vocal over the last week about how these changes were communicated to them by Warner Bros. Discovery—i.e., with no communication at all. (In at least one case, a creator for one of the shows affected apparently learned about plans for what was happening to her series from our reporting, because Cartoon Network had reached out to us with info—but not her.) Parker Simmons from Mao Mao: Heroes Of Pure Heart, Julia Pott of Summer Camp Island, Owen Dennis of Infinity Train, Stephen P. Neary of The Fungies!, Myke Chilian of Tig ‘n Seek, Jennifer Skelly of Little Ellen—creators of well-loved series who had accepted, for years, low budgets and the always-present specter of sudden cancellations from Cartoon Network (where many of these shows originated, before being moved to HBO Max amidst Warner’s various mergers and restructurings over the last few years) are now opening up about this new low on Twitter, Twitch, Substack, and more.
Dennis—whose Infinity Train had been both critically lauded and embraced by audiences before it was quietly canceled by WarnerMedia last year—has written a detailed piece about what this process looks like from the point of view of the people actually making these shows. The picture he paints is of a thoroughly disorganized mess, as executives terrified of losing their own jobs botched the timing of explaining the cuts to anyone on the creative side. (Higher-ups appear to have pulled the trigger on the cuts before executives expected them to, throwing any chance of bringing those creators onboard before headlines started rolling in straight into the toilet.) Dennis does note that these cuts do not appear to be part of the tax break situation that killed the Batgirl and Scoob movies—although speculation that they’re about cutting residuals for creators, which help to pay things like health insurance for employees on the shows and which allegedly add up to some tens of million dollars across all the series affected, is only that: Speculation. (Zaslav, meanwhile, reportedly made $246 million at Discovery in 2021, a number that probably hasn’t gone down now that he’s running the merged company. Just sayin’.)
The other creators mentioned above have expressed similar sentiments to the ones in Dennis’ essay, describing either the briefest flicker of communication from the company, or, in most cases, none at all. What is evident, and consistent, in their responses is a sense of anger and betrayal: Although this is by no means a unified issue among creators, it’s rare to see quite this many people responsible for creating TV shows talk openly about the sudden desirability of pirating their own work. If nothing else, it’s clear that Zaslav has burned a bridge with a whole generation of creators. Understandable, that, since it’s hard not to read these cuts, and the manner in which they were handled, as an expression of contempt and perceived disposability toward the writers, producers, directors, animators, actors, and more who toiled for unkind hours to create these artworks—and for the fans who were passionate for them.
In a perfect world, this would be a different article—a streaming guide to great animated shows on HBO Max, perhaps, instead of an attempt to document how shoddily their corporate owners have treated them. There is some small silver lining, at least: Some of these shows are still available (legally) online, where they’re currently dominating the iTunes charts; Infinity Train, Mao Mao, Summer Camp Island, and OK K.O.! Let’s Be Heroes all have solid proof that people do, in fact, find genuine value in them, even if David Zaslav refuses to see it. (Meanwhile, if you’re hoping for physical media, good luck: Infinity Train, one of the few shows affected to get any form of DVD release, is now sold out on Amazon, and prices on eBay are skyrocketing in response to its sudden, Warner Bros. Discovery-imposed scarcity.)
The company has even gone so far as to pull any references to these shows from its social media and YouTube accounts; search for Summer Camp Island or Tig ‘N Seek on YouTube, and you won’t see a single entry from HBO Max—although you will find plenty of videos from fans bemoaning those shows’ fates (and a few holdovers from their time on Cartoon Network). And that makes a certain grim sense: If a show was only available through streaming—and now it’s not—then removing the remaining evidence of its pesky existence is just a matter of making people forget about it in an ever-more-packed attention economy.
Warner Bros. Discovery would likely be delighted if people lost interest in these shows, stopped bugging them, stopped trying to treat them like something they loved or cherished. Stopped talking about how a show like Infinity Train made them laugh, and cry, with its emotionally honest depictions of young emotions and silly, spectacular sci-fi. Stopped loudly campaigning for the company to treat artists like their work matters; to treat fans like their passion for a project gives it value. They’re just cartoons, after all; the company can always pump out more if it ever decides to get back into the business of entertaining kids a few more mergers down the line. These things make themselves, right?
David Zaslav certainly seems to think so.