AT&T Chief Randall Stephenson “Impressed” By Disney Streaming, Says NFL Sunday Ticket Will Stay On DirecTV

Nikki Ritcher for the Wall Street Journal.

AT&T Chairman and CEO Randall Stephenson said he was “impressed by what Disney did” at its investor day earlier this month, a three-plus-hour reveal of extensive details about the company’s direct-to-consumer streaming plans.

The euphoria that greeted the Disney event — with the company’s stock gaining 10% in subsequent trading days — was “very instructive,” Stephenson told Wall Street analysts during the company’s first-quarter earnings call. It “gave the market an appreciation that this is a viable DTC product.”

Similarly, Stephenson said, WarnerMedia’s forthcoming service will leverage the library of Warner Bros, combining it with premium offerings from HBO, Turner and other brands in a yet-to-be-defined service with three subscription tiers.

Stephenson did not reveal new details about pricing or other aspects of the WarnerMedia service, but confirmed the expected Q4 launch would come after hosting an investor day in September or October. The company has said that the initial launch will be in beta, with a full rollout in early 2020. AT&T, Disney, Apple and NBCUniversal are all mobilizing large-scale streaming offerings over the coming months, as traditional media and tech rivals see a chance to mount a response to Netflix and other established streaming players.

“The Disney announcement gave us nothing but optimism,” Stephenson said, saying the company expects “significant customer uptake.” Recently minted WarnerMedia entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt is just “getting his hands into this and working it aggressively,” he added. Greenblatt arrived in February from a seven-year run leading entertainment at NBCUniversal.

Stephenson also fielded a question about a decision to drop the NFL Network and NFL Red Zone from the company’s U-verse cable service and DirecTV Now streaming package after those contracts expired this month. That call came as the rights to the league’s Sunday Ticket premium service on DirecTV are coming up for renewal at the end of this season. That has heightened speculation among analysts and sports media observers that a new entity could grab some or all of Sunday Ticket, which launched on DirecTV in 1994. Stephenson asserted that the company remains “heavily invested in the NFL” and added that “exclusivity should remain as we go forward on DirecTV.”

At the same time, he said customer data shows DirecTV far outperforms U-verse as a vehicle to satisfy football fans. While NFL Network being blacked out will deprive some customers of their daily football fix, Stephenson acknowledged, U-verse will continue to offer the league via a range of other broadcast and cable outlets.

“It’s all stuff we carry,” he said, so it “didn’t really make sense to carry it” outside of DirecTV. “We’ll give our customers access to the NFL through other media. If they really are an NFL-centric customer, we’ll move them to DirecTV,” he said.

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