Lessons from AT&T’s bruising entertainment experience

How AT&T entered and exited the media business

AT&T enters the satellite market at its peak

In 2014, AT&T announced it was buying DirecTV. By that time, AT&T was already bundling DirecTV with its phone and internet service and had approximately 5.9 million linear pay-TV (U-Verse) video subscribers. However, this pay-TV business was already experiencing decline, to the extent that when the DirecTV merger completed in mid-2015, U-Verse subscribers had fallen to 5.6 million by the end of that year.

With the acquisition of DirecTV, AT&T went from a small player in the media and entertainment industry to one of the largest media players in the world adding 39.1 million (US and Latin American) subscribers and paying $48.5bn ($67bn including debt) to acquire the business. The rationale for this acquisition (the satellite business) was to compete with cable operators by being able to offer broadband, increasing AT&T’s addressable market beyond its fibre-based U-Verse proposition which was only available in certain locations/states.

AT&T and DirecTV enjoyed an initial honeymoon, period recording growth up until the end of 2016 when DirecTV subscribers peaked at just over 21 million in the US.

From this point onwards however, AT&T’s satellite subscribers went into decline as customers switched to cheaper competitor offers as well as online streaming services. The popularity of streaming services was reflected by moves among traditional media players to develop their own streaming services such as Time Warner’s HBO GO and HBO NOW. In 2015, DirectTV’s satellite competitor Dish TV likewise launched its own streaming service Sling TV.

Even though it was one of the largest TV distributors on a satellite platform, AT&T also believed online streaming was its ultimate destination. Prior to the launch of its streaming service in late 2016, Bloomberg reported that AT&T envisioned DirecTV NOW as its primary video platform by 2020.

A softwarised platform delivered lowered costs as the service could be self-installed by customers and didn’t rely on expensive truck roll installation or launching satellites. The improved margins would enable AT&T to promote TV packages at attractive price points which would balance inflation demands from broadcasters for the cost of TV programming. AT&T could also more easily bundle the softwarised TV service with its broadband, fibre and wireless propositions and earn more lucrative advertising revenue based on its own network and viewer insights.

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The beginnings of a bumpy journey in TV

AT&T’s foray into satellite and streaming TV can be characterised by a series of confusing service propositions for both consumers and AT&T staff, expensive promotional activity and overall pricing/product design misjudgements as well as troubled relations with TV broadcasters resulting in channel blackouts and ultimately churn.

Promotion, pull back and decline of DirecTV NOW

DirectTV NOW launched in November 2016, as AT&T’s first over the top (OTT) low cost online streaming service. Starting at $35 per month for 60+ channels with no contract period, analysts called the skinny TV package as a loss leader given the cost of programming rights and high subscriber acquisition costs (SACs). The loss leader strategy was aimed at acquiring wireless and broadband customers and included initiatives such as:

  • Promotional discounts to its monthly $60 mid-tier 100+ channel package reduced to $35 per month for life (subject to programming costs).
  • Device promotions and monthly waivers. The service eventually became available on popular streaming devices (Roku, Xbox and PlayStation) and included promotions such as an Apple TV 4K with a four month subscription waiver, a Roku Streaming Stick with a one month waiver or a $25 discount on the first month.
  • Customers could also add HBO or Cinemax for an additional $5 per month, which again was seen as a costly subsidy for AT&T to offer.

The service didn’t include DirecTV satellite’s popular NFL Sunday Ticket programming as Verizon held the smartphone rights to live NFL games, nor did it come with other popular shows from programme channels such as CBS. Features such as cloud DVR (digital video recording) functionality were also initially missing, but would follow as AT&T’s TV propositions and functionalities iterated and improved over time.

The DirecTV NOW streaming service enjoyed continuous quarterly growth through 2017 but peaked in Q3 2018 with net additions turning immediately negative in the final quarter of 2018 as management pulled back on costly promotions and discounted pricing.

The proposition became unsustainable financially in terms of its ability to cover rising programming costs and was positioned comparatively as a much less expensive service to its larger DirecTV satellite pay-TV propositions.

The DirecTV satellite service sold some of the most expensive TV propositions on the market and reported higher pay-TV ARPU ($131) than peers such as Dish ($89) and Comcast ($86) in Q4 2019.

  • The launch of a $35 DirecTV NOW streaming service with no contract and with a similar sounding name to the full linear service confused both new and existing DirecTV satellite customers and some would have viewed their satellite package as expensive compared to the cheaper steaming option.

Rising programming costs

AT&T’s low-cost skinny TV packages brought them into direct confrontation with TV programmers in terms of negotiating fees for content. When the streaming service launched, analysts highlighted the channels within AT&T’s base package were expected to rise in price annually by around 10% each year and this would eventually require AT&T to eventually balance programming costs with rising monthly package pricing.

Confrontations with programmers included a three-week dispute with CBS and an eight week dispute with Nexstar in 2019, which resulted in a blackout of both CBS and Nexstar channels across AT&T’s TV platforms such as Direct TV, U-Verse, DirectTV NOW. Commenting on the blackouts in Q3 2019, Randall Stephenson noted there were “a couple of significant blackouts in terms of content, and those blackouts drove some sizable subscriber losses”.

AT&T’s confrontation with content owners may have been a contributory reason to consider acquiring a content creation platform of its own in the form of Time Warner.

In mid-2018, as AT&T withdrew promotions and discounts for DirecTV NOW (later rebranded it to AT&T TV NOW), customers began to drop the OTT TV service.

  • AT&T TV NOW went from a peak of 1.86 million subscribers in Q3 2018 to 656,000 at the end of 2020.

DirecTV NOW subscriptions

DirecTV-subs-AT-T-stlpartners

Source: STL Partners, AT&T Q2 Earnings 2021

Name changes and new propositions create more confusion

In 2019, DirecTV NOW was re-branded to AT&T TV NOW , and continued to be promoted as a skinny bundle operating alongside AT&T TV, a new full fat live TV streaming version of the DirecTV satellite TV proposition. AT&T TV  was first piloted in August 2019 and soft launched in November 2019. The AT&T TV service included an Android set-top box with cloud DVR functionality and supported other apps such as Netflix.
AT&T TV required a contract period and offered pricing (once promotional discount periods ended) resembling a linear pay-TV service, i.e. $90+. This was, in effect, the very type of pay-TV proposition customers were abandoning.
AT&T TV was seen as an ultimate replacement for the satellite business based on the advantages a softwarised platform provided and the ability to bundle it with AT&T broadband, fibre and wireless services.

Confusion amongst staff and customers

The new AT&T TV proposition confused not only customers but also AT&T staff, as they were found mixing up the AT&T TV proposition with the skinny AT&T TV NOW proposition. By 2019 the company diverted its attention away from AT&T TV NOW  pulling back on promotional activity in order to focus on its core AT&T TV live TV service.

According to Cord Cutters News, both services used the same app but remained separate services. AT&T’s app store marketing incorrectly communicated the DirectTV NOW service was now AT&T TV when in fact it was AT&T TV NOW. Similarly, technical support was also incorrectly labelled with online navigation sending customers to the wrong support channels.

AT&T’s own customer facing teams misunderstood the new propositions

DirecTV-Cordcutter-news

Source: Cord Cutters News

Withdrawal of AT&T TV NOW

By January 2021, AT&T TV NOW was no longer available to new customers but continued to be available to existing customers. The AT&T TV proposition, which was supposed to offer “more value and simplicity” was updated to include some features of the skinny bundle such as the option to go without an annual contract requirement. Customers were also not required to own the set-top box but could instead stream over Amazon Fire TV or Apple TV.  In terms of pricing, AT&T TV was twice the price of the originally launched DirecTV NOW proposition costing $70 to $95 per month.

The short life of AT&T Watch TV

In April 2018, while giving testimony for AT&T’s merger with Time Warner, AT&T’s then CEO Randall Stephenson positioned AT&T Watch TV as a potential new low-cost service that would benefit consumers if the merger was successful. Days following AT&T’s merger approval in the courts, the low cost $15 per month, ultra-skinny bundle launched as a suitable low-cost cord-cutter/cord-never option for cable, broadband and mobile customers from any network. The service was also free to select AT&T Unlimited mobile customers.

By the end of 2018, the operator claimed it had 500,000 AT&T Watch TV“established accounts”. By the end of 2019 the operator had updated its mobile tariffs removing Watch TV for new customers subscribing to its updated Unlimited mobile tariffs. Some believed the company didn’t fully commit to the service, referring to the lack of roll out support for streaming devices such as Roku. The operator was now committed to rolling out its new service HBO Max in 2020. AT&T has informed Watch TV subscribers the service will close 30 November 2021.

Timeline of AT&T entertainment propositions

AT-T-Timeline-Entertainment

Source: STL Partners

The decline of DirecTV

As the graphic belowshows, in June 2021 there were 74.3 million pay-TV households in the US, reflecting continued contraction of the traditional pay-TV market supplied by multichannel video programming distributor (MVPD) players such as cable, satellite, and telco operators. According to nScreenMedia, traditional pay-TV or MVPD market lost 6.3 and 6.2 million customers over 2019 and 2020, but not all were cord-cutters. Cord-shifters dropped their pay-TV but shifted across to virtual MVPD (vMVPD) propositions such as Hulu Live, Sling TV, YouTube TV, AT&T TV NOW, Fubo TV and Philo. Based on current 2021 cord-cutting levels, nScreenMedia predicts 2021 will be the highest year of cord-cutting yet.

Decline in traditional pay-TV households

pay-tv-decline-nscreenmedia

Source: nScreenMedia, STL Partners

Satellite subscribers to Dish and DirecTV 2015-2020

Satellite-pay-tvdish-nscreenmedia

Source: nScreenMedia, STL Partners

When considering AT&T’s management of DirecTV, nScreenMedia research shows the market number of MVPD subscribers declined by over 20 million between 2016 and 2020. In that time, DirecTV lost eight million subscribers. While it represented 20% of the MVPD market in 2016, DirecTV accounted for 40% of the pay-TV losses in the market (40% of 20 million equals ~8 million). AT&T’s satellite rival Dish weathered the decline in pay-TV slightly better over the period.

  • In Q4 2020 the operator wrote down $15.5bn on its premium TV business, which included DirecTV decline, to reflect the cord cutting trend as customers found cheaper streaming alternatives online. The graphic (below) shows a loss of 8.76 million Premium TV subscribers between 2017 and 2020 with large losses of 3.4 million and 2.9 million subscribers in 2019 and 2020.

AT&T’s communications business has also been enduring losses in legacy voice and data (DSL) subscriptions in recent years. AT&T has used a bundling strategy for both products. As customers switched to AT&T fibre or competitor broadband offerings this also impacted the video subscription.

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
    • What can others learn from AT&T’s experience?
  • How AT&T entered and exited the media business
    • AT&T enters the satellite market at its peak
    • The beginnings of a bumpy journey in TV
    • Vertical integration strategy: The culture clash
    • AT&T’s telco mindset drives its video strategy
    • HBO MAX performance
  • The financial impact of AT&T’s investments
    • Reversing six years of strategic change in three months
  • Lessons from AT&T’s foray into media

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Telco M&A strategies: Global analysis

Introduction

Business beyond connectivity – this is the mantra of STL Partners’ vision of the future for telecoms operators, outlined in the recent revamp of our Telco 2.0 vision. Telcos are at a crossroads where they must determine where their businesses will fit into a world of disruptive, fast-moving technologies and uncertain futures.

This means that it is more important than ever to re-evaluate the tools available to telcos to generate growth, expand their business competencies and provide new service offerings outside the core.

Traditionally, a key telco growth strategy has been to use mergers and acquisitions, particularly of (and with) other telcos, to build scale geographically and in core communications services. However, as operators strive to become more relevant in a changing business landscape, there has been a growing volume of investment in what might be termed ‘digital’ business – business services that leverage technology to build new capabilities and deliver new customer services, experiences and relationships. We distinguish between these two kinds of telecoms M&A as follows:

  • Traditional M&A – “Operators buying operators”
    • Traditional M&A is focused around traditional telecoms M&A where operators buy other operators to expand in new markets or consolidate existing markets.
  • Digital M&A – “Operators investing outside core”
    • Digital M&A refers to non-operator M&A, or all other purchases that telcos make to expand beyond their core connectivity services. Most often this includes investments in software capabilities or industry verticals.

This report examines the landscape of digital M&A from H2 2017 to H1 2018, highlights trends across previous time periods, and outlines strategies for and case studies of digital M&A to illustrate ways that telcos can utilise it in a focused and strategic manner to create long-term value and growth. It does not cover minority venture digital investments; however, these are tracked in our database and will be the subject of future analysis.

This report is the third iteration of STL Partners’ yearly digital M&A and investment report, which began in 2016 and was updated in 2017. It draws on data from our digital M&A tracker tool, which covers 23 operators over five regions from 2012 to H1 2018. A copy of the database is available with this report.

Previous editions of the telco M&A database

The STL Partners Digital Investment Database: August 2016 Update

The STL Partners Digital Investment Database

We published our Digital Investment Database in early July, together with a report titled Digital M&A and Investment Strategies. Given recent high profile activities, we’ve now issued an updated version.

While there have been a number of smaller investments and acquisitions, two major acquisitions have hit the headlines since we published our report. On 18 July, it was announced that SoftBank was buying the UK chip manufacturer ARM Holdings for £24.3bn. Then, on 24 July, Verizon bought Yahoo! for $4.8bn. Here, we take a quick look at these two acquisitions.

SoftBank and ARM: (big) business as usual?

Why ARM? For its £24.3bn, SoftBank has gained one of the world’s leading processor manufacturers, with a strong existing business designing processors for smartphones and tablets, and an excellent opportunity to develop new revenues from the IoT. The attraction is clear, but the sums involved are huge.

Yet in some ways, this acquisition is the progression of business as usual. Our analysis based on v1.0 of our database suggests that SoftBank has long been one of the most active telcos in digital M&A. Among the 31 investments and acquisitions we tracked from 2012-1H2016, SoftBank was outstripped only by Deutsche Telekom, Singtel, and Telstra.

However, while the ARM deal fits with this prior interest in digital businesses, the bulk of SoftBank’s recent purchases have had a software focus: ARM marks a shift towards hardware. Moreover, the size of the transaction dwarfs SoftBank’s previous efforts.

Much media coverage has suggested that the ARM deal might be closely associated with the recent return of CEO Masayoshi Son, an adventurous, ambitious leader with a history of bold purchases. Looking at our database, the ARM deal certainly breaks the mould of telco acquisitions, as SoftBank’s £24.3bn deal for ARM is by far the biggest non-core-business acquisition tracked by our database.[1] But £24.3bn rarely changes hands on a whim, and we intend to publish further in-depth analysis on this in future.

Verizon and Yahoo!: Can a telco challenge Google and Facebook on advertising?

Verizon’s purchase of Yahoo! for $4.8bn was, in financial terms, far smaller than the SoftBank/ARM deal. Yet it received a great deal of media attention, partly, of course, because Yahoo! remains a significant household name in the US in particular, and a salient reminder of how the corporate landscape of the internet has changed.

At its peak in 2000, Yahoo! was worth $125bn. So there are clear questions: have Verizon snapped up an undervalued business, or has it splashed cash on a dinosaur?

Verizon has been very clear that its intention with Yahoo! is to join the advertising business with its 2015 purchase of AOL for $4.4bn, and become the third player in digital advertising behind Google and Facebook. CEO Lowell McAdam made no bones about the business’s ambitions in oft-repeated comments shortly after the deal was announced: ‘Are we going to challenge Google and Facebook? I just say, look, we’re planning on being a significant player here. The market is going to grow exponentially.’[2]

Currently, Google and Facebook together have over 50% of the US digital advertising market. AOL and Yahoo! combined have 6%. 1bn users view Yahoo! content each month, and Verizon only therefore needs to persuade a few advertisers to switch to them in order to grow market share.

From a telco point of view, one key facet of this argument is that potential synergies between Yahoo! and Verizon’s network do not appear to be essential. While telcos have classically searched for M&A opportunities that directly complemented their core business, Verizon might be understood as using its market value to finance deals that have independent value – not unlike Softbank and ARM. However, there are questions around the true value of Yahoo!’s share of digital advertising.

At the moment of Facebook’s IPO in 2012, Yahoo! had greater revenue. But since then. Google and Facebook have transformed digital advertising by making it targetable. Google knows what you want, when you want it (a search for ‘buy blue jeans’, for instance), and Facebook knows what you like (as users are encouraged to document their preferences). It can use this data to give advertisers access to the most relevant sections of a vast potential online audience.

This is a strong business model that has proved more valuable as these companies have refined it. Yahoo!’s digital advertising is not quite as sophisticated, and it remains to be seen if Verizon will be able to develop the revenue it envisages.

Verizon and Fleetmatics: Under the radar

Yahoo! garnered the majority of media attention, but Verizon also spent $2.4bn on Fleetmatics, a digital business that provides SaaS for fleet management. M2M fleet tracking is nothing new, but as well as its core software business, the company has the potential to play an important role in the industrial IoT as connected vehicles become more common.

Together, the two acquisitions might suggest a drive to develop profitable plays in markets beyond core telco revenue: from Fleetmatics, the IoT, and from AOL-Yahoo, digital advertising. Moreover, for strategists and practitioners placing the two together may have greater significance than viewing them separately.

Highlighting such deals and longer term trends behind them are two of the key goals of our M&A database.

Accessing the database

Our Digital Investment Database documents key digital investments and acquisitions for twenty-two operators during the period 2012 – August 2016.

An illustrative snapshot of part of the database

[1] To be precise, ‘non-core-business’ excludes telcos buying businesses involved in delivering the quadruple play of fixed, mobile, internet, and TV – for example, BT’s purchase of EE, or AT&T’s purchase of DirecTV.

[2] Financial Times, 26 July 2016.

Digital M&A and Investment Strategies

Introduction

Communications services providers have long used M&A as a key element of strategy. By far the most common approach has been to acquire other operators to build scale in core communications services. For the vendor operator, selling off assets has been as a way of raising cash to reduce debt or enable further investment in core markets. As telecommunications growth has slowed and technological developments and user behaviour have swung towards mobile, so M&A activity has increased as players have strived for market consolidation, integration of fixed-mobile capabilities, or geographic expansion as a source of growth. BT-EE in the UK, Orange-Jazztel in Spain, and Etisalat-Maroc Telecom provide respective examples.

However, as operators continue to build digital capabilities and strive to deliver digital services, M&A and investment beyond ‘traditional telecoms’ is picking up. Telcos need to move beyond a traditional, slow ‘infrastructure-only’ approach, to one that focused on agility rather than stability, enablement rather than end-to-end ownership and delivery of solutions, and innovation rather than continuity. For more details, see our recent report Solution: Transforming to the Telco Cloud Service Provider (Part 2). Making such a change is not without its challenges, and many operators now see M&A and investments as an important part of the Telco 2.0/digital transformation journey.

This report explores the drivers of digital M&A and the strategies of different operators including ‘deep-dive’ analysis of SingTel, Telstra and Verizon. There is an accompanying database with key digital acquisitions and investments for twenty-two operators during the period 2012 – 1H 2016 inclusive.

Drivers for operator M&A and majority investment

Figure 1: Drivers for operator M&A and majority investment – traditional and digital

Source: STL Partners

Traditional/Telco 1.0 drivers: reach and scale

As illustrated above, drivers that refer to ‘traditional’ or ‘Telco 1.0’ M&A and investment are well-established:

1. Extending geographic footprint is often a key driver…

  • …to new markets that are adjacent geographically (e.g., DTAG’s numerous investments in CEE region operators, America Movil’s investments in LatAm),
  • …or to those that are linked culturally or linguistically (e.g., Telefonica’s acquisitions and investments in Latin American operators),
  • …or simply offer good opportunities for expanded footprint and increased efficiencies of operation in emerging regions where demand for mobile services is still growing strongly (e.g., SingTel and Etisalat’s numerous investments in operators in Asia and Africa, respectively).

2. Extending traditional communications offerings, is currently the most significant trend, as mobile operators look to acquire fixed network assets and vice versa, in order to develop compelling multiplay and converged offers for their customers. The recent BT acquisition of EE in the U.K. is one example.

3. Consolidation has slowed to some extent, as regulators and competitors fight against acquisitions that remove players from the market or concentrate too much market power in the hands of stronger service providers. This has been a particular issue in the European Union (E.U.), where E.U. regulators have refused to approve several proposed telecoms M&A deals recently, including TeliaSonera and Telenor in Denmark, and the proposed Hutchison acquisition of O2 to merge with its subsidiary Three, in the UK. Other deals, such as the proposed Orange-Bouygues Telecom merger in France which was abandoned in April 2016, have failed due to the parties involved failing to reach agreement. However, our research shows continued interest in operator M&A for consolidation, with recent successful examples including TeliaSonera’s acquisition of Tele2 Norway in 2015.

4. The acquisition of service partners – primarily channel partners, or partner companies providing systems integration and consultancy capabilities, typically for enterprise customers – has proved an important driver of M&A for many (mainly converged) operators. For the purpose of our analysis, we are counting the SI and consulting M&A activity as ‘digital/Telco 2.0’ rather than ‘traditional/Telco 1.0’, where it focuses on a specific digital area (e.g., cloud services, analytics).

5. Finally, operator M&A is also being driven by the enthusiasm of sellers. Many operators are looking to sell off assets outside of their home markets, pulling back from markets that have proven too competitive, too small or simply too complicated, as part of a strategy to pay down debt and/or free up assets for investment in other higher-growth areas:

  • TeliaSonera’s pullback from its Eurasian markets has seen it sell off a 60% stake in Nepalese operator Ncell to Axiata, and it is also planning to divest its majority stake in Kazakhstan’s Kcell through a sale to Turkcell.
  • Telefonica’s attempt to sell its O2 UK unit to Hutchison having failed, the Spanish operator is now looking to other ways of raising capital both to pay down its large debt (at EUR 49.7m as of January 2016, the company’s debts actually exceeded its market value) and to fund its ambitions to build out its media empire.

 

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Drivers for operator M&A and majority investment
  • Telco digital M&A constraints – why take the risk?
  • Evaluating operator digital investment strategies
  • 22 players across 5 regions: US and Asia most aggressive
  • Which sectors are attracting the most interest?
  • Operator M&A strategies in detail: SingTel, Telstra and Verizon
  • SingTel: focusing on digital marketing, media and security
  • Telstra: Spreading Its Digital Bets across Health, Cloud and Video
  • Verizon: acquisition to support digital advertising and media dominance
  • Recommendations

 

  • Figure 1: Drivers for operator M&A and majority investment – traditional and digital
  • Figure 2: Telco cost and operational models inhibit innovation and discourage investments in unfamiliar digital businesses
  • Figure 3: Number of operator digital acquisitions and majority investments, 2012 – 1H2016
  • Figure 4: Largest 10 telco digital M&A and majority investments, 2012 – 1H2016
  • Figure 5: Mapping of operator digital M&A strategies
  • Figure 6: Number of digital M&A and majority investments by sector/category 2012 – 1H2016
  • Figure 7: SingTel – digital investment overview
  • Figure 8: Amobee’s proposition focuses on cross-platform advertising and analytics
  • Figure 9: Telstra’s Digital Acquisitions and Majority Investments, 2012 – 1H 2016
  • Figure 10: Ooyala’s proposition
  • Figure 11: Cloud is the key element in Telstra’s Telco 2.0 strategy
  • Figure 12: Verizon’s Digital Acquisitions and Majority Investments, 2012 – 1H 2016