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AT&T Chief Randall Stephenson Talks Time Warner Deal, Getting Hate Mail & Privacy Concerns

It may not be the sexiest part of the entertainment business but AT&T chief Randall Stephenson is eagerly anticipating the audience data windfall to come from the union of the telco giant and Time Warner.

AT&T’s $85.4 billion takeover of Time Warner is expected to receive its final federal regulatory clearance within a few months. Speaking Wednesday at Vanity Fair’s New Establishment Summit in Los Angeles, Stephenson said the combined company will benefit from the marriage of data mined from DirecTV and AT&T’s wireless services with the enormous advertising inventory sold annually by the Turner cable networks.

Stephenson told moderator Stephanie Mehta that DirecTV is able to command advertising rates two to three times the rates that Turner now receives because the satcaster is able to offer highly targeted audience data to advertisers. Turner nets will be able to capitalize on the data to offer programmatic buys and other advanced advertising formats to high-end marketers.

“If we can bring to traditional media what is happening in the digital world, you can have a real profound impact,” Stephenson said.

Mehta pressed Stephenson on potential changes after the merger is completed. As he has for more than a year, the AT&T chief stressed that he is “not a media tycoon” and that his management team is “mindful that we are buying something we don’t have a lot of experience in.”

AT&T’s plan is to keep Time Warner’s existing management teams largely intact because “these are pretty well-run businesses,” Stephenson said. “When you pay a big premium for high quality assets, the first priority is don’t screw up the businesses you’re buying.”

But he did allow that “there will invariably be changes.” Mehta pressed him specifically on the fate of CNN Worldwide president Jeff Zucker amid persistent rumors that President Donald Trump’s animosity to CNN and Zucker in particular has been a sticking point in the merger review. Stephenson praised CNN’s recent track record. He didn’t explicitly say that Zucker would remain at the helm but added: “Our hope is that we keep the key talent in place,” he said.

Among other topics raised during the 30-minute Q&A:

Stephenson said he has received hate mail for speaking out on social issues such as the anti-transgender rights bathroom bill that he helped rally opposition against in Texas (he called it “the most nonsensical thing I’d ever seen”). In his role as president of Boy Scouts of America, he pushed the organization to change its policy of barring gay youths from joining. “I got a lot of feedback on that,” he said. Stephenson said he prefers to address issues that have real-world impact on AT&T’s hundreds of thousands of employees. “I don’t have an affinity for the moralizing CEO,” he said.

Prompted by a question from the audience, Stephenson cited the growing lobbying and legislative activity around the issue of consumer privacy rights and the notion of media companies compensating users for surrendering their personal data for advertising purposes. “The world is moving to a place of an opt-in world” in which consumers will have the chance to set “a price at which they are willing to share.” He urged media and entertainment leaders to focus on the topic sooner rather than later. “If we wait for somebody else to deal with it we probably aren’t going to like the answer,” he said.

Asked the inevitable question about his favorite show to binge watch, Stephenson picked an obvious choice for the man who is about to be the big boss of HBO: “Game of Thrones.” He apologized to HBO chief Richard Plepler, who was in the audience, for only being on Season 4.

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