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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Triple-Play in the USA: Infrastructure Pays Off

Introduction

In this note, we compare the recent performance of three US fixed operators who have adopted contrasting strategies and technology choices, AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast. We specifically focus on their NGA (Next-Generation Access) triple-play products, for the excellent reason that they themselves focus on these to the extent of increasingly abandoning the subscriber base outside their footprints. We characterise these strategies, attempt to estimate typical subscriber bundles, discuss their future options, and review the situation in the light of a “Deep Value” framework.

A Case Study in Deep Value: The Lessons from Apple and Samsung

Deep value strategies concentrate on developing assets that will be difficult for any plausible competitor to replicate, in as many layers of the value chain as possible. A current example is the way Apple and Samsung – rather than Nokia, HTC, or even Google – came to dominate the smartphone market.

It is now well known that Apple, despite its image as a design-focused company whose products are put together by outsourcers, has invested heavily in manufacturing throughout the iOS era. Although the first generation iPhone was largely assembled from proprietary parts, in many ways it should be considered as a large-scale pilot project. Starting with the iPhone 3GS, the proportion of Apple’s own content in the devices rose sharply, thanks to the acquisition of PA Semiconductor, but also to heavy investment in the supply chain.

Not only did Apple design and pilot-produce many of the components it wanted, it bought them from suppliers in advance to lock up the supply. It also bought machine tools the suppliers would need, often long in advance to lock up the supply. But this wasn’t just about a tactical effort to deny componentry to its competitors. It was also a strategic effort to create manufacturing capacity.

In pre-paying for large quantities of components, Apple provides its suppliers with the capital they need to build new facilities. In pre-paying for the machine tools that will go in them, they finance the machine tool manufacturers and enjoy a say in their development plans, thus ensuring the availability of the right machinery. They even invent tools themselves and then get them manufactured for the future use of their suppliers.

Samsung is of course both Apple’s biggest competitor and its biggest supplier. It combines these roles precisely because it is a huge manufacturer of electronic components. Concentrating on its manufacturing supply chain both enables it to produce excellent hardware, and also to hedge the success or failure of the devices by selling componentry to the competition. As with Apple, doing this is very expensive and demands skills that are both in short supply, and sometimes also hard to define. Much of the deep value embedded in Apple and Samsung’s supply chains will be the tacit knowledge gained from learning by doing that is now concentrated in their people.

The key insight for both companies is that industrial and user-experience design is highly replicable, and patent protection is relatively weak. The same is true of software. Apple had a deeply traumatic experience with the famous Look and Feel lawsuit against Microsoft, and some people have suggested that the supply-chain strategy was deliberately intended to prevent something similar happening again.

Certainly, the shift to this strategy coincides with the launch of Android, which Steve Jobs at least perceived as a “stolen product”. Arguably, Jobs repeated Apple’s response to Microsoft Windows, suing everyone in sight, with about as much success, whereas Tim Cook in his role as the hardware engineering and then supply-chain chief adopted a new strategy, developing an industrial capability that would be very hard to replicate, by design.

Three Operators, Three Strategies

AT&T

The biggest issue any fixed operator has faced since the great challenges of privatisation, divestment, and deregulation in the 1980s is that of managing the transition from a business that basically provides voice on a copper access network to one that basically provides Internet service on a co-ax, fibre, or possibly wireless access network. This, at least, has been clear for many years.

AT&T is the original telco – at least, AT&T likes to be seen that way, as shown by their decision to reclaim the iconic NYSE ticker symbol “T”. That obscures, however, how much has changed since the divestment and the extremely expensive process of mergers and acquisitions that patched the current version of the company together. The bit examined here is the AT&T Home Solutions division, which owns the fixed-line ex-incumbent business, also known as the merged BellSouth and SBC businesses.

AT&T, like all the world’s incumbents, deployed ADSL at the turn of the 2000s, thus getting into the ISP business. Unlike most world incumbents, in 2005 it got a huge regulatory boost in the form of the Martin FCC’s Comcast decision, which declared that broadband Internet service was not a telecommunications service for regulatory purposes. This permitted US fixed operators to take back the Internet business they had been losing to independent ISPs. As such, they were able to cope with the transition while concentrating on the big-glamour areas of M&A and wireless.

As the 2000s advanced, it became obvious that AT&T needed to look at the next move beyond DSL service. The option taken was what became U-Verse, a triple-play product which consists of:

  • Either ADSL, ADSL2+, or VDSL, depending on copper run length and line quality
  • Plus IPTV
  • And traditional telephony carried over IP.

This represents a minimal approach to the transition – the network upgrade requires new equipment in the local exchanges, or Central Offices in US terms, and in street cabinets, but it does not require the replacement of the access link, nor any trenching.

This minimisation of capital investment is especially important, as it was also decided that U-Verse would not deploy into areas where the copper might need investment to carry it. These networks would eventually, it was hoped, be either sold or closed and replaced by wireless service. U-Verse was therefore, for AT&T, in part a means of disposing of regulatory requirements.

It was also important that the system closely coupled the regulated domain of voice with the unregulated, or at least only potentially regulated, domain of Internet service and the either unregulated or differently regulated domain of content. In many ways, U-Verse can be seen as a content first strategy. It’s TV that is expected to be the primary replacement for the dwindling fixed voice revenues. Figure 1 shows the importance of content to AT&T vividly.

Figure 1: U-Verse TV sales account for the largest chunk of Telco 2.0 revenue at AT&T, although M2M is growing fast

Telco 2 UVerse TV sales account for the largest chunk of Telco 2 revenue at ATandT although M2M is growing fast.png

Source: Telco 2.0 Transformation Index

This sounds like one of the telecoms-as-media strategies of the late 1990s. However, it should be clearly distinguished from, say, BT’s drive to acquire exclusive sports content and to build up a brand identity as a “channel”. U-Verse does not market itself as a “TV channel” and does not buy exclusive content – rather, it is a channel in the literal sense, a distributor through which TV is sold. We will see why in the next section.

The US TV Market

It is well worth remembering that TV is a deeply national industry. Steve Jobs famously described it as “balkanised” and as a result didn’t want to take part. Most metrics vary dramatically across national borders, as do qualitative observations of structure. (Some countries have a big public sector broadcaster, like the BBC or indeed Al-Jazeera, to give a basic example.) Countries with low pay-TV penetration can be seen as ones that offer greater opportunities, it being usually easier to expand the customer base than to win share from the competition (a “blue ocean” versus a “red sea” strategy).

However, it is also true that pay-TV in general is an easier sell in a market where most TV viewers already pay for TV. It is very hard to convince people to pay for a product they can obtain free.

In the US, there is a long-standing culture of pay-TV, originally with cable operators and more recently with satellite (DISH and DirecTV), IPTV or telco-delivered TV (AT&T U-Verse and Verizon FiOS), and subscription OTT (Netflix and Hulu). It is also a market characterised by heavy TV usage (an average household has 2.8 TVs). Out of the 114.2 million homes (96.7% of all homes) receiving TV, according to Nielsen, there are some 97 million receiving pay-TV via cable, satellite, or IPTV, a penetration rate of 85%. This is the largest and richest pay-TV market in the world.

In this sense, it ought to be a good prospect for TV in general, with the caveat that a “Sky Sports” or “BT Sport” strategy based on content exclusive to a distributor is unlikely to work. This is because typically, US TV content is sold relatively openly in the wholesale market, and in many cases, there are regulatory requirements that it must be provided to any distributor (TV affiliate, cable operator, or telco) that asks for it, and even that distributors must carry certain channels.

Rightsholders have backed a strategy based on distribution over one based on exclusivity, on the principle that the customer should be given as many opportunities as possible to buy the content. This also serves the interests of advertisers, who by definition want access to as many consumers as possible. Hollywood has always aimed to open new releases on as many cinema screens as possible, and it is the movie industry’s skills, traditions, and prejudices that shaped this market.

As a result, it is relatively easy for distributors to acquire content, but difficult for them to generate differentiation by monopolising exclusive content. In this model, differentiation tends to accrue to rightsholders, not distributors. For example, although HBO maintains the status of being a premium provider of content, consumers can buy it from any of AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, any other cable operator, satellite, or direct from HBO via an OTT option.

However, pay-TV penetration is high enough that any new entrant (such as the two telcos) is committed to winning share from other providers, the hard way. It is worth pointing out that the US satellite operators DISH and DirecTV concentrated on rural customers who aren’t served by the cable MSOs. At the time, their TV needs weren’t served by the telcos either. As such, they were essentially greenfield deployments, the first pay-TV propositions in their markets.

The biggest change in US TV in recent times has been the emergence of major new distributors, the two RBOCs and a range of Web-based over-the-top independents. Figure 2 summarises the situation going into 2013.

Figure 2: OTT video providers beat telcos, cablecos, and satellite for subscriber growth, at scale

OTT video providers beat telcos cablecos and satellite for subscriber growth at scale

Source: Telco 2.0 Transformation Index

The two biggest classes of distributors saw either a marginal loss of subscribers (the cablecos) or a marginal gain (satellite). The two groups of (relatively) new entrants, as you’d expect, saw much more growth. However, the OTT players are both bigger and much faster growing than the two telco players. It is worth pointing out that this mostly represents additional TV consumption, typically, people who already buy pay-TV adding a Netflix subscription. “Cord cutting” – replacing a primary TV subscription entirely – remains rare. In some ways, U-Verse can be seen as an effort to do something similar, upselling content to existing subscribers.

Competing for the Whole Bundle – Comcast and the Cable Industry

So how is this option doing? The following chart, Figure 3, shows that in terms of overall service ARPU, AT&T’s fixed strategy is delivering inferior results than its main competitors.

Figure 3: Cable operators lead the way on ARPU. Verizon, with FiOS, is keeping up

Cable operators lead the way on ARPU. Verizon, with FiOS, is keeping up

Source: Telco 2.0 Transformation Index

The interesting point here is that Time Warner Cable is doing less well than some of its cable industry peers. Comcast, the biggest, claims a $159 monthly ARPU for triple-play customers, and it probably has a higher density of triple-players than the telcos. More representatively, they also quote a figure of $134 monthly average revenue per customer relationship, including single- and double-play customers. We have used this figure throughout this note. TWC, in general, is more content-focused and less broadband-focused than Comcast, having taken much longer to roll out DOCSIS 3.0. But is that important? After all, aren’t cable operators all about TV? Figure 4 shows clearly that broadband and voice are now just as important to cable operators as they are to telcos. The distinction is increasingly just a historical quirk.

Figure 4: Non-video revenues – i.e. Internet service and voice – are the driver of growth for US cable operators

Non video revenues ie Internet service and voice are the driver of growth for US cable operatorsSource: NCTA data, STL Partners

As we have seen, TV in the USA is not a differentiator because everyone’s got it. Further, it’s a product that doesn’t bring differentiation but does bring costs, as the rightsholders exact their share of the selling price. Broadband and voice are different – they are, in a sense, products the operator makes in-house. Most have to buy the tools (except Free.fr which has developed its own), but in any case the operator has to do that to carry the TV.

The differential growth rates in Figure 4 represent a substantial change in the ISP industry. Traditionally, the Internet engineering community tended to look down on cable operators as glorified TV distribution systems. This is no longer the case.

In the late 2000s, cable operators concentrated on improving their speeds and increasing their capacity. They also pressed their vendors and standardisation forums to practice continuous improvement, creating a regular upgrade cycle for DOCSIS firmware and silicon that lets them stay one (or more) jumps ahead of the DSL industry. Some of them also invested in their core IP networking and in providing a deeper and richer variety of connectivity products for SMB, enterprise, and wholesale customers.

Comcast is the classic example of this. It is a major supplier of mobile backhaul, high-speed Internet service (and also VoIP) for small businesses, and a major actor in the Internet peering ecosystem. An important metric of this change is that since 2009, it has transitioned from being a downlink-heavy eyeball network to being a balanced peer that serves about as much traffic outbound as it receives inbound.

The key insight here is that, especially in an environment like the US where xDSL unbundling isn’t available, if you win a customer for broadband, you generally also get the whole bundle. TV is a valuable bonus, but it’s not differentiating enough to win the whole of the subscriber’s fixed telecoms spend – or to retain it, in the presence of competitors with their own infrastructure. It’s also of relatively little interest to business customers, who tend to be high-value customers.

 

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • A Case Study in Deep Value: The Lessons from Apple and Samsung
  • Three Operators, Three Strategies
  • AT&T
  • The US TV Market
  • Competing for the Whole Bundle – Comcast and the Cable Industry
  • Competing for the Whole Bundle II: Verizon
  • Scoring the three strategies – who’s winning the whole bundles?
  • SMBs and the role of voice
  • Looking ahead
  • Planning for a Future: What’s Up Cable’s Sleeve?
  • Conclusions

 

  • Figure 1: U-Verse TV sales account for the largest chunk of Telco 2.0 revenue at AT&T, although M2M is growing fast
  • Figure 2: OTT video providers beat telcos, cablecos, and satellite for subscriber growth, at scale
  • Figure 3: Cable operators lead the way on ARPU. Verizon, with FiOS, is keeping up
  • Figure 4: Non-video revenues – i.e. Internet service and voice – are the driver of growth for US cable operators
  • Figure 5: Comcast has the best pricing per megabit at typical service levels
  • Figure 6: Verizon is ahead, but only marginally, on uplink pricing per megabit
  • Figure 7: FCC data shows that it’s the cablecos, and FiOS, who under-promise and over-deliver when it comes to broadband
  • Figure 7: Speed sells at Verizon
  • Figure 8: Comcast and Verizon at parity on price per megabit
  • Figure 9: Typical bundles for three operators. Verizon FiOS leads the way
  • Figure 12: The impact of learning by doing on FTTH deployment costs during the peak roll-out phase