UPDATE with closing stock price. Two years and tens of billions of dollars after AT&T’s pursuit of Time Warner began, the assets now known as WarnerMedia generated zero discussion during an hour-long quarterly earnings call with Wall Street analysts.
Before the call, AT&T reported a mixed bag of third-quarter results, missing profit estimates but narrowly beating revenue forecasts. The numbers prompted a selloff of AT&T shares, which dropped more than 8% on five times normal trading volume. They closed at $30.36 after setting a new 52-week low of $30.13 and have slipped more than 5% since the $81 billion Time Warner acquisition closed on June 14.
During the conference call, no analyst asked a single question about WarnerMedia. The silence came despite a stream of recent headlines, including plans for a new subscription streaming service in 2019 and the upcoming federal court date for the government’s appeal of its lawsuit aiming to undo the Time Warner deal.
Aside from glancing mentions of the unit being “immediately accretive to earnings,” execs did not talk about Warner Bros., HBO or Turner. WarnerMedia head John Stankey was announced as being on the line at the start of the call, but he never spoke.
In place of movie and TV talk, the call covered topics such as AT&T’s pre-paid wireless business, its build-out of 5G networks and the state of its TV distribution businesses. On that last point, executives addressed the less-than-scintillating results for skinny bundle service DirecTV Now. The internet-delivered package had 1.9 million subscribers as of September 30, the company said, but its growth slowed from the second quarter to the third.
The company, which controls 27% of the pay-TV space across DirecTV, U-verse and DirecTV Now, reported a loss of 346,000 traditional DirecTV satellite subscribers, with 49,000 customers adding DirecTV Now in the period. In the second quarter, the skinny bundle added 342,000 subscribers.
Despite that dip, “We expected a worse outcome than we’ve had” given recent price hikes and withdrawal of promotional pricing, said John Donovan, CEO of AT&T Communications.
When AT&T rolled out its first video streaming service, DirecTV Now, in 2016, it was clearly a bet on the future, and a strategy to offset declines in its satellite TV service. In the two years since, the company has studied the consumer trends, discovering “a tale of two cities,” in Donovan’s words.
In a marketplace full of heavily marketed skinny-bundle competitors such as YouTube TV and Hulu, Donovan said, a segment of subscribers is jumping from promotion to promotion — “seasonal shoppers shopping for shows,” as he put it. As AT&T responded by raising prices for DirecTV Now and removing promotions, it has attracted another segment of customers who are “highly engaged and find the product compelling.”
DirecTV is “burning off” budget-minded subscribers and tailoring its streaming service to these higher-end consumers, Donovan added. It has rolled out more comprehensive and expensive programming packages, and add-ons such as Spanish-language sports shows or content from Vietnam and Brazil.
“We’re taking our learnings in DirecTV Now,” Donovan said. “To be more discriminating about the content that’s provided.”
AT&T’s recently launched Watch TV, Donovan noted, is profitable “right out of the chute.” The service delivers more than 30 channels of live TV programming to mobile devices for $15 a month.