Speaking at the Bank of America Merrill Lynch Communications & Entertainment Conference, Stephens explained the logic of the move, which positions Stankey as next in line to CEO Randall Stephenson. He said it reflects the effort behind next spring’s launch HBO Max (a major focus of Stankey’s time leading WarnerMedia), which will leverage distribution and advertising platforms across all of AT&T.
“Go look at John’s background,” Stephens said, noting Stankey’s travels in IT, technology, networks, retail and mobile, on top of his two years running the former Time Warner assets. “He’s the guy that’s got the background and the capabilities, who we know and he knows us. And he knows all our capabilities.”
Pressed for details about the investor day on October 29 on the Warner Bros lot in Burbank, when long-awaited HBO Max details will be revealed, Stephens said AT&T brass will play only a cameo role in the presentation. Instead, investors will see “a lot of the team that is really the braintrust and the talent and the capabilities” behind HBO Max. “We’ll have some other AT&T stuff … but we’ll really focus on the quality” of the content offering. Some financial projections will be offered, but “people need to let the team come out and do their job” of demonstrating and explaining the service.
Apple’s splashy product reveal on Tuesday, punctuated by the news of the $4.99-a-month pricing and November 1 launch date for streaming service Apple TV+, is increasing curiosity about what rivals have in store. Disney is launching Disney+ on November 12 and NBCUniversal is also planning a major entry next April. HBO Max, which will offer HBO fare plus new originals and programming from across the WarnerMedia portfolio. faces a bit of a challenge on pricing. HBO Now has been at $15 a month since launching in 2015, meaning the new service could start off at triple the price of Apple’s and double Disney+. With Hulu now under its control, Disney has also created a bundle of Disney+, Hulu and ESPN+ for $13 a month, the same price most Netflix subscribers pay in the U.S.
Stephens said he would “leave it to others” to assess the impact of Apple’s show and strategy, but he said HBO Max is “much different than what was talked about by some of the other” streaming players. As he absorbed the Apple presentation, the CFO recalled thinking, “Boy, we have capabilities that others just don’t have.” Plus, he added, Warner Bros Television “did a couple of the shows. They must be good. They do pretty good shows.”
Stephens was asked at the top of the session for any more reaction to Monday’s shot across AT&T’s bow by activist hedge fund Elliott Management. The fund sent a letter to the company’s board seeking major changes, recommending several steps and blaming poor outcomes thus far from debt-producing M&A deals.
The CFO largely deferred to AT&T’s official statement, but said he agreed with one of the points raised by Elliott. “The collection of assets we have accumulated were pointed out to be something that could create significant value,” Stephens said. “We certainly believe that the activities we’ve undergone for the last few years to get here, to accumulate those assets, we are excited about.”