For Big Media, the fourth-quarter earnings revelations so far have reinforced predictions that 2022 is the year the honeymoon ends for the promise of new streaming ventures. Now it’s entrenching time. The streaming wars shift to a month-by-month, country-by-country battle to lure subscribers at a cost and monthly fee that makes quarterly ARPU numbers sing.
This is no easy feat, no matter how big your international footprint or IP vault may be. AT&T and Comcast in their own ways are grappling with the limits of the subscriber funnel-theory that drove so much investor-conference chatter just a few years ago.
AT&T’s Stankey sounded like a CEO who was ready to see the back of the WarnerMedia assets soon after a rocky three-and-a-half years in the telco’s tent. On the company’s Jan. 26 Q4 earnings call, Stankey talked up WarnerMedia’s “strong exit velocity” as AT&T prepares to “hand off” Warner Bros., HBO and the Turner networks to a new marriage with Discovery. As soon as Batman, Tony Soprano and Logan Roy are out of the picture, AT&T plans to re-rebrand itself as a fat pipe for all that streaming media that the erstwhile Ma Bell no longer needs to worry about.
“We aim to be America’s best broadband provider powered by 5G and fiber and defined by greater ubiquity, reliability, capacity and speed,” Stankey said. He noted that AT&T’s consumer “messaging” around its core wireless operations will change after the $43 billion Discovery spinoff is complete.
Stankey said in not so many words that AT&T will be able to start pursuing acquisitions to support its core connectivity businesses again once the spinoff allows AT&T to tame the debt load that was piled on by Stankey’s predecessor, Randall Stephenson, with his pursuit of DirecTV and Time Warner. Now that both of those companies have new homes, after some intriguing financial engineering by AT&T, the company is ready “to pursue additional shareholder value creation initiatives over time,” Stankey said.
AT&T bought Time Warner in a bid to use the media assets to shore up the wireless services and vice versa. Subscribers would flow through multiple funnels to the promised land of maintaining a monthly subscription for a bundle of video, wireless and high-speed internet services.
AT&T now wants to hone the focus back to wireless connectivity. Its consumer funnels didn’t become a subscriber flywheel that drove a robust global platform after all. Stankey now wants to get back to AT&T’s basics and ride the 5G wave. A big 38% drop in operating income for WarnerMedia in the quarter coupled with another $500 million of incremental HBO Max investment explains why. In the final tally for 2021, HBO and HBO Max added 5.3 million domestic subscribers, rising to 46.8 million from 41.5 million in Q4 2020, and 13.2 million more on the international side for a total of 73.8 million.
Comcast chairman-CEO Roberts has also grappled with finicky funnels. The progress of NBCUniversal’s streamer Peacock has been underwhelming so far compared to its rivals. Comcast has banked on its cable systems and NBCUniversal assets to serve as fly paper to draw customers to Peacock’s hybrid subscription/ad-supported model.
Nearly two years after its beta launch, Comcast disclosed on Jan. 27 that Peacock has about 9 million paid subscribers, most of them on the “ad light” plan of $5 a month. Overall, Peacock counts 24.5 million monthly active users for some aspect of the platform.
Unlike AT&T, Comcast is preparing to double down on streaming, at least for now. Comcast chief financial officer Michael Cavanagh told investors that content spending on Peacock would double in 2022 to “over $3 billion” with the goal of getting to $5 billion within a few years. NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell added that 2023 is expected to be Peacock’s peak investment year and that a nearly $10 ARPU (average revenue per user) was already well past expectations for 2022.
Comcast has also bundled top-tier access to Peacock into its Xfinity Flex TV streaming box that offers easy access to streaming apps and is free with Comcast’s Xfinity Internet service. Xfinity Flex has about 7 million subscribers.
The uphill climb for Comcast in growing Flex is no doubt fueling rumors that Comcast is interested in buying Roku, a rival streaming TV box that, as of the third quarter, had 56.4 million subscribers. Roku’s new gatekeeper role as a prime distributor of apps (not unlike an old-fashioned cable operator and linear channels) for a double-digit fee is said to have greatly irked the Comcast chief, given his company’s underlying assets.
Just like Stankey, Roberts wants to go shopping again after a few years of paying down debt and buying back stock. Although Comcast has been a lightning rod in Washington, D.C. at times, the CEO is promising to leave no doorbell unrung in the hunt for new pipelines into America’s living rooms.
“We will strike the right balance between subscriber acquisition against a large and expanding addressable market as well as long-term profitable growth,” Roberts vowed. “On that front, we will evaluate every opportunity to increase our serviceable passings, even more so than we have in the past.”
(Pictured: John Stankey, Brian Roberts)