AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said in the subscription video landscape, HBO is “the Tiffany” to Netflix’s Walmart.
Expanding on earlier comments by WarnerMedia chief John Stankey, Stephenson spoke during the kickoff session at the Goldman Sachs Communacopia conference. While he poked the streaming giant, he said the focus at WarnerMedia is increasing the spending and output of HBO. “You’d like to fill out the schedule” on HBO. “But we’re not talking about Netflix-scale investments.”
The extra budget for content — which he did not assign a number to — will be achieved through cost savings. “There are a lot of overhead costs, procurement costs, finance. Not inconsequential synergies.”
HBO chief Richard Plepler “is, I believe, a master” at developing effective, on-brand programming, Stephenson added. “He is very bullish that with a modest level of spending” increase, the competitive position of the premium network can be fortified.
The increasingly tight competition between HBO and Netflix — especially with the latter matching the former stride for stride in the Emmy race and pledging $12 billion a year to original content — has put WarnerMedia at a crossroads. The media unit’s new head, John Stankey, caused a stir with some comments in June during a town hall meeting in which he discussed the state of the premium network onstage with Plepler. He predicted a “difficult year” that he likened to childbirth.
Stephenson also was asked about the government’s appeal of a federal judge’s ruling in June allowing the acquisition of Time Warner — valued at $100 billion including assumed debt — to proceed. He said he expects a resolution by January or February.
The Department of Justice has appealed the case to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, continuing to argue that the merger is anti-consumer and anti-competitive. A three-judge panel is expected to begin hearing arguments in October.
“We feel very good where we stand on appeal,” he said. “The deal is closed. The integration is going quite well. The teams are spending zero effort thinking about the appeal.”
Reflecting on the 22-month odyssey of getting the merger approved, as well as more recent skirmishes with regulators over net neutrality, he lamented that “the pendulum swings back and forth” with the political tides. “How do you operate in an environment like this?” he asked. “I don’t think there’s enough bipartisan support to agree on what the freezing temperature of water is.”
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