VIP Roundup: Media/Tech Companies Making Waves, Week of Aug. 24

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Variety Intelligence Platform

VIP’s “Making Waves” roundup analyzes the week’s biggest media and tech headlines to ensure decision makers in the space don’t miss a beat. Here’s a look at the biggest news of the week: 

AT&T Once Again Shopping Around DirecTV 

Pssst. Wanna buy a rapidly declining satellite-TV business with dim long-term prospects? Has AT&T got a deal for you! Goldman Sachs has a thankless task of shopping this albatross around in hopes of getting less than half the $49 billion the telco paid for the business five years ago. Private-equity firms are one possible destination for DirecTV, but all eyes are on Charlie Ergen, the Dish founder who once deemed a merger between the two satcasters “inevitable.” It would create a distribution colossus with unprecedented leverage in affiliate-fee negotiations with content companies. But the safe bet is AT&T is stuck with this turkey, which means the company’s debt headache will continue.

TikTok Bidding Heats Up as CEO Kevin Mayer Quits

In reverse chronological order, the key updates of the week: TikTok sued the U.S. government in response to its ban; Google said it wasn’t interested in buying the app; CEO Kevin Mayer resigned after three months; Walmart confirmed it’s teaming up with Microsoft for a bid; Centricus Asset Management and video app Triller are looking to buy TikTok in the U.S. and other countries. Yes, it remains a great time to be on the TikTok beat, because of the Trump Administration’s stubborn stance that the social app is a national security threat (nothing publicly available suggests foul play by the Chinese government, though the WH’s chief concern is what could be done). TikTok’s radioactivity breeds unpredictability, but if you want some idea of what (maybe) could be next for Zhang Yiming & Co., CNBC yesterday reported a TikTok sale could be announced next week.

Hollywood’s Star Agents Pivot to Launch Management Firms

As COVID-19 shrinks their revenues, the big talent firms are facing another upheaval: agents fleeing to become managers. CAA and Entertainment One alum Pete Micelli is forming an unnamed management firm that aims to focus on “the top 1%” of celebs and so far counts such talent as UTA partner Susie Fox and WME partner Rich Cook as team members. Separately, WME partner Phillip Sun announced he’s exiting his agency to launch a management firm with MACRO CEO Charles D. King. Aside from personal relationships with agents at these new management firms, the promise of greater attention than a huge agency provides could help lure clients to the companies spearheaded by Micelli and Sun. 

Joe Budden Podcast Going Rogue on Spotify

Rapper-turned-podcaster Joe Budden on Wednesday announced he’ll soon stop distributing his popular podcast on Spotify. The split stems from money disputes (or a “bum-ass deal” offer, per Budden), although Spotify claimed it offered Budden a “considerable” offer larger than its previous deal. That’s a noticeable but not irrecoverable blow for Spotify: Yes, Budden boasts a (sometimes) top-charting podcast, but his episodes are also still being distributed on YouTube anyway. Sure, some Joe Budden diehards who were lured to Spotify for Budden pods could cancel their subscriptions, but it also seems likely a lot of consumers drawn to Spotify because of Budden would just stick with the service because it’s turned into their all-encompassing audio-streaming product since 2018. The growing stable of Spotify exclusives (Joe Rogan, Michelle Obama et al.) is just more incentive to stay. 

Apple Going Abstract With AR Content to Lure Streaming Subs

Apple is planning on integrating AR content into Apple TV+ in 2021, Bloomberg reported on Wednesday. Plans could be scrapped, but that means you may eventually be able to see Apple TV+ content overlaid on your living room fixtures. (Imagine Ted Lasso on your coffee table!) It’s an intriguing concept, and one that other streamers likely aren’t as equipped to tackle in-house, but AR is not the lone answer to Apple TV+’s seemingly still low adoption in the U.S. Apple, a streamer focused on cultivating an HBO-esque brand with prestige content, probably would benefit from focusing on curating some more casual-watch and unscripted fare to appear as a more accessible SVOD to the masses.

Audible Launching New Tier to Boost Amazon’s Podcast Reach 

Amazon-owned Audible launched a new lower-priced tier, Audible Plus, on Monday that gives subscribers access to its audiobooks and podcasts for $7.95 per month. The new tier lacks the exclusive discounts and audio program freebies that are gifted to Premium Plus subscribers. Still, it’s a way for Amazon to make its audio catalog and podcasts, which it’s been bulking up on in 2020, more accessible as podcast listening in the U.S. becomes more popular. The new tier is likely to appeal to and sign up consumers who were already familiar with the Audible service first, rather than, say, poach a Spotify subscriber. That’s because while Audible does appeal to the audiobook fan demographic, it’s not yet as buzzy as Spotify is on the podcast front. 

To Devs, Epic Games Keeps Fighting the Good Fight Against Apple

The Epic Games-Apple battle continues on a timeline that’s as unpredictable as the TikTok-U.S. government battle. This week, Epic won a victory, with a judge ruling Apple wasn’t allowed to block developer access to Epic’s Unreal Engine, which is one of the most popular toolkits used for big-budget games and also relied on by hundreds of app makers. But Epic is far from out of the woods, as Apple still won’t bring Fortnite back to the App Store until it complies with App Store guidelines (i.e., playing by Apple’s payment tool rules). Apple also just terminated an Epic dev account that doesn’t include Unreal Engine. Currently, it seems many Fortnite fans are keen to back Tim Sweeney’s fight against Apple, but the Fortnite iOS app is already suffering (loss of cross-platform functionality, lack of future updates), and that’s likely to diminish some willingness to back Sweeney, which in turn would diminish some of his leverage. 

Networks Solidify Fall Programming Lineups Amid COVID-19 Uncertainty

The predictable theme for networks’ fall schedules: COVID-19 messed it up. CBS revealed its fall TV schedule will lean into unscripted and acquired series as its regular scripted series begin production (though CBS was unable to complete filming of its biggest reality show, “Survivor”). ABC yesterday announced its fall schedule, which only included unscripted series (like “America’s Funniest” and “The Bachelorette”); scripted is expected to return gradually in October. NBC tweaked its fall lineup and will similarly roll out scripted series such as “Superstore” in October after launching unscripted series in September. Fox and The CW are filling the holes in their schedules with acquired series as well and had not slated most of their scripted originals as of yesterday morning. 

Streamers Capitalize on Pent-Up Theatergoing Demand Via Drive-Ins 

Events that both bet there’s pent-up demand for moviegoing: Quibi, in partnership with Collider, held a free drive-in screening of its original “The Stranger” in L.A., while FT two days ago reported (other outlets also published the news last week) Netflix is offering a drive-in “Stranger Things” experience in L.A. in October for $59 per car. These two happenings resemble more one-off-like efforts by Netflix and Quibi to forge greater connections with their superfans (who miss moviegoing and are willing to drive to drive-in experiences), rather than represent the beginning of major drive-in biz-development efforts. It’s a fun way to help get some of their customers who are going stir crazy out of the house, and to that end, it seems a little unfair the amount of flak Quibi got for its screening (which, again, was free).