AT&T chairman-CEO Randall Stephenson has signaled his willingness to consider selling all or part of DirecTV as the satellite provider struggles with major subscriber losses.
The AT&T boss was pressed by Wall Street analysts Monday morning during the company’s third-quarter earnings call about the future of DirecTV, which posted a whopping 1.1 million subscriber loss for the quarter. Stephenson said AT&T is open to the possibility of a range of potential options for DirecTV.
“We have no sacred cows,” he said, referring to the ongoing asset review that AT&T is undertaking as it sells off non-core assets to pay down debt.
On Sunday, AT&T confirmed the sale of its majority stake in Central European Media Enterprises for $1.1 billion. AT&T chief financial officer John Stephens told analysts on the call that AT&T has sold $14 billion in assets this year to attack its leverage load. Another $5 billion to $10 billion worth of asset sales are expected next year.
DirecTV has become a drain on AT&T as its subscriber losses have accelerated much faster than AT&T anticipated when it first cut a deal to acquire the satellite broadcaster in 2015 for $48 billion. There’s been speculation in the marketplace that DirecTV may be merged with the nation’s other satellite TV provider, Charlie Ergen’s Dish, which has also faced an exodus of customers as the pay-TV landscape has become more competitive.
“We will evaluate multiple options, and that includes partnerships and other structures [for DirecTV],” Stephenson said.
AT&T’s earnings come one day before the company raises the curtain on WarnerMedia’s HBO Max, the streaming platform scheduled to launch in the spring. Stephenson talked up the venture as a crucial driver of earnings and the synergy strategy that HBO has sought to assemble during the past few years in marrying Time Warner’s content with AT&T’s wireless telco and data services.
“It’s time to reap the rewards of the investments we made over the last few years,” Stephenson said in outlining AT&T’s three-year growth plan for investors.
Stephenson said AT&T is projecting 50 million domestic subscribers for HBO Max — an enhanced content offering that encompasses the traditional HBO service and new tiers of original and library content — by 2025. WarnerMedia is hosting an HBO Max investor presentation Tuesday on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, Calif.
“This is not Netflix. This is not Disney. This is HBO Max,” Stephenson said. “It’s going to have a very unique position in the marketplace.” Stephenson reiterated that AT&T expects to add a live streaming component to the HBO Max bundle over time. “That platform becomes the platform through which we also deliver live streaming TV,” he said.
Stephenson said AT&T leadership are focused on “product simplification” for the company’s pay-TV offerings around traditional DirecTV linear service, HBO Max and a basic low-cost streaming package recently introduced as AT&T Watch TV.
Stephenson was also pressed on the future of John Stankey, who was promoted in October to president and chief operating officer of AT&T in addition to his role as CEO of WarnerMedia. Stankey’s promotion spurred speculation that AT&T would soon find a new leader for WarnerMedia, as his promotion to COO was seen as the first step toward eventually succeeding Stephenson in the top job.
But as AT&T faced public criticism from investor Elliott Management, Stephenson on Monday made the pledge that he will remain CEO at least through the end of 2020. After Stephenson’s departure, the AT&T board has determined the roles of chairman and CEO will be divided.
On the call, Stephenson indicated that Stankey would be status quo in his dual role for the near term. “I don’t anticipate that he will relinquish (WarnerMedia),” Stephenson said. “He’s got a big job. He has been spending a lot of time building his leadership team, getting the right people in the right spots and getting HBO stood up.”
At the same time Stephenson allowed that Stankey will eventually need more help. “No doubt he’ll find the right person for that job,” he said. “I feel really good about the team he’s assembling and I feel really good about where it’s going.”