With $90 million movies being canceled and titles disappearing without notice, HBO Max seems to be facing an uncertain future thanks to the merger of its parent company WarnerMedia with Discovery. The television market is no stranger to volatility, but the loss of HBO Max’s original programming could represent a major setback for queer representation on television.
Perhaps that’s why my Twitter has looked like the last moments of the Titanic for the last several days, fans desperately trying to toss their favorite shows onto the life raft to safety.
Mainstream queer television content is still a relatively new concept. There was Melrose Place in the ’90s, featuring a gay male lead in its first five seasons. In 1998, Will & Grace helped modernize the multi-camera sitcom with its lead ensemble including two gay men. A year before that, Ellen DeGeneres came out in tandem with the character she played on her ABC sitcom Ellen. The moment was etched in pop culture history, but the show died a year later. All too often, LGBTQ+ stories were sidelined or shuttered from the screen.
When Netflix began debuting original content in 2013, LGBTQ+ stories were a major ingredient.
Orange is the New Black featured an ensemble of queer characters. Sense8 won the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Drama Series and was lauded for its queer representation. The series was canceled after two seasons in June 2017, but after an intense fan backlash, Netflix ordered a two-hour wrapup movie.
Half a decade later, cancellations are as common as the sunset for Netflix. But not only has its business model changed, its identity has too. While Netflix once seemed like a progressive beacon, highlighting gender and sexuality in ways broadcast television often deemed too taboo, the service has pivoted towards more “mainstream” audiences. When Dave Chappelle’s standup special The Closer drew criticism from Netflix’s customers and its staff for transphobic content, co-CEO Ted Sarandos doubled down, defending Chappelle’s comments. In a memo to staff, Sarandos said “If you’d find it hard to support our content breadth, Netflix may not be the best place for you.”
As other streaming services have shifted course, LGBTQ+ titles have often been among the first on the chopping block. Earlier this month, Netflix canceled First Kill, an LGBTQ+ romance vampire show, after just one season, Deadline reported. The showrunner has since criticized the service for its marketing of the series. With a lack of stability and consistent representation, the streaming world has fallen into the all-too-familiar heteronormativity that has dominated television since its inception.
That’s, in part, why HBO Max has been such a breath of fresh air. With originals such as Hacks and Our Flag Means Death garnering critical acclaim, HBO Max not only tapped into a queer market, but strived to keep those audiences.
Naveen Hrishikesh, a 24-year-old in Virginia, was one of many in crisis regarding the service’s uncertain future. He said he feels passionate about HBO Max’s catalog because many of their originals, such as The Sex Lives of College Girls, touch on relatable identity issues.
HBO Max “has such a pulse on the culture,” he said. “To some people it may seem silly, like ‘they’re just shows’ but, they are important cultural touchstones for a lot of people, including me.”
The Other Two—an original that aired its initial season on Comedy Central—is a rare show that truly puts the gay experience on display. It’s not written from and for a straight lens (that’s Modern Family). It’s TV “by gay people, for gay people” as Twitter user Tom Zohar put it. And it could all be washed away.
After the cancellation of Batgirl, which would have featured transgender actress Ivory Aquino alongside Leslie Grace’s Latina supeheroine, rumors swirled that HBO Max could be slashing its development staff and cutting back on original content. And while Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav sought to lay those concerns to rest in an investor call at the end of last week, the fear is still real—and rational given television’s unkind history.
For one thing, there are the head-scratching demographics laid out during the call. HBO Max was described as male-skewing versus Discovery’s female-skew, raising questions (and sparking many a meme) of how much the company understands its audience, and who exactly fits into these binaries they measure.
With cuts likely, it’s easy to fear queer content will be the first to go, especially when unscripted home renovation and dating shows are relatively cheap to produce. If Discovery decides to minimize HBO Max’s original content and double down on shows about couples who hate each other buying split-level houses, that’s an affront to the brand it bought. We want to see Ava continue bumbling awkwardly on Hacks. We want to follow Leighton’s coming-out journey on The Sex Lives of College Girls. And we fought too hard not to devote a half-hour to Cary sending accidental hole pics on The Other Two.
Without these stories, the television industry will suffer a great loss. And the trust many queer people have put on HBO Max will dissipate.
So, if Warner Bros. Discovery executives happen to be perusing this article, here’s a message: preserve HBO Max. Take pride in being a television service so many queer people find safety and comfort in, and keep producing the shows that helped make the service such a runaway success.