Who killed Erin McMenamin? Millions of Americans wanted to know and they tuned in on Sunday night to find out — or at least they tried. However, when the loyal fans who had tuned in week after week to find out what sinister forces were at work in Easttown, opened up HBO Max on a holiday weekend, the app failed. I know, because I was one of them.
Essentially, HBO MAX was caught unprepared for a massive real-time viewership, and it caused a user uproar. It took two-and-a-half hours for HBO Max to declare the problem fixed, only for users to essentially say, “No it’s not.”
HBO Max failed to scale! And this high-profile stumble is a lesson for all the apps looking to increase their number of users and bring more people into the digital fold. Planning is key.
What is scalability?
In its simplest terms, “scalability is the capacity of a system to grow and change as the needs that define it do.” In HBO’s case, the Max app needs to be able to run error-free even under the highest demand. Here’s the thing: This snafu was predictable and avoidable.
As a technologist I can assure you that there are known technical solutions to providing content for a popular show on the night of its finale and @hbomax simply didn't invest in them.— Jon "Robinette" Webb (@jonawebb) May 31, 2021
”Mare of Easttown” premiered with a million viewers seven weeks ago, the second-best premiere in HBO Max’s history. The online buzz about the show has only increased viewership. In fact, TV LIine reports, “Mare of Easttown has been an increasingly impressive performer through its freshman run. Its penultimate episode delivered two million viewers last Sunday night across all platforms, more than doubling its total premiere night performance in April and nearly tripling its digital viewership since debut.” And though many people, like me, don’t usually stay up on a Sunday night to catch the latest episode — which starts at 10 p.m. — it was a holiday weekend, so we decided to watch it in real-time and sleep in on Monday morning. We even wondered if HBO was kind enough to plan it this way — and then the app failed. Because it wasn’t able to scale and accommodate an influx of users.
When “The Game of Thrones” finale aired, we had a similar problem, though it resolved itself much more quickly and we only had a few minutes of frustration. But this past Sunday night, it was roughly 40 minutes after “Mare of Easttown” began that I finally figured out a workaround. Here’s how that went:
- At about 9:30 p.m. my partner and I opened the HBO Max app on our Roku put on the last half of episode six to remind ourselves of what happened last week
- At 10 p.m. we attempted to start episode seven and the app crashed
- At 10:02 p.m. we try again, and again, and again
- At 10:05 p.m. we check Twitter and find out we aren’t the only ones experiencing problems
- This went on for a while. We entertained ourselves with other people’s clever tweets, complained, and then tried the HBO Max app on my iPad. That didn’t work either. On Twitter people were starting to report being able to “start” the show only to get thrown into a random episode of “The Big Bang Theory” or see the art for a documentary about Andre the Giant instead of Mare.
I wish I was making this up but every time I try to play the mare finale it just plays the Big Bang theory @hbomax you're under arrest pic.twitter.com/FfRzeokaEr— Kate Knibbs 🏄🏻♀️ (@Knibbs) May 31, 2021
- People who subscribe to HBO Max through Hulu or other apps were saying they were able to watch. I subscribe through iTunes so I tried to fire up the Apple TV app and connect it to HBO. No luck — the content was “unavailable.”
- Finally, around 10:40 p.m. or so, I got the show to start on my iPhone and was able to AirPlay it to my TV.
Perplexingly, the marketing machine continued to fire on all cylinders as users reported emails and pop-up notifications that reminded them to watch, even though nearly the entire East Coast of the U.S. was unable to access the app let alone the show.
I would if I could, @hbomax. I would if I could. pic.twitter.com/cHd8iNL5wh— LoAnne B. Hole (@javsy) May 31, 2021
The importance of scaling your app
A quick glance through the tweets being hurled at HBO Max — and even at the streaming service’s older tweets — revealed that problems with the app were nothing new. Users wondered how HBO planned to keep customers with so many streaming issues, others asked if they would get a credit on their bill.
We all know HBO isn’t going anywhere. The next must-watch prestige drama will drive even more subscribers to HBO Max and all will be forgiven — but hopefully not forgotten. Because as bulletproof as a company like HBO might be — we all hung around to watch the finale after all — smaller apps are not and it’s exactly this kind of issue that can make or break you.
Learn how to effectively scale your app from the people who have been there!