AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson Concedes “Complicated” Narrative, But Management Team Sees Clarity In HBO Max

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AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, who was the final executive to take the stage during WarnerMedia’s investor day on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, closed with an admission to the Wall Street analysts in attendance.

“Some of you have told me this story is complicated,” he said of the company’s sprawling portfolio and emerging strategy. “I hope that the insights that we’ve given you” during Monday’s earnings release and Tuesday “are bringing clarity. Because the opportunity here is very clear to all of us.”

After Stephenson wrapped, his second-in-command, John Stankey, and a team from WarnerMedia fielded questions from analysts, many of whom seemed to be working to process the event’s many themes and takeaways. The biggest news from the presentation was the depth and nature of the subscription service, rather than its pricing or launch timing. HBO Max will cost $14.99 and debut in May 2020, both details which had largely been expected. Tuesday’s events was one of the biggest tests for AT&T since it finally escaped the last legal threats from the government in February after its $81 billion purchase of Time Warner.

Stankey and his team sought to clear up the matter of what happens to existing HBO assets, such as the legacy linear channel and streaming platforms HBO Now and HBO Go once Max is up and running. The latter two platforms will continue to operate for the foreseeable future. Stankey, though, sardonically described an “IQ test” for consumers pondering two $15 options: plain HBO and a far more robust HBO Max. “Why wouldn’t you want twice the content for the same price?”

As Stephenson did on Monday’s earnings call, several execs referred to Max as the “workhorse” for the years to come. But Otter Media CEO Tony Goncalves said the company is committed to “not leaving any customers behind” as it expands and redefines its offerings.

Whether HBO Max can achieve liftoff comparable with the previous iterations bearing the name HBO depends on distribution negotiations soon to come. About 10 million customers of HBO who get it through AT&T-owned platforms like DirecTV and U-verse will get HBO Max free at launch. As to the rest of HBO’s footprint, “We are in active discussions with distributors the intent is to get the entire 30-plus million consumers access to HBO Max as quickly as we possibly can,” Goncalves said. Stankey pointed out that distributors “want to keep customers engaged on their platforms,” meaning they could integrate Max into the rest of their offerings, especially if they can take fees based on serving as a gateway.

The company sees a more unified user experience as the TV bundle and streaming landscape keeps evolving. “Over time, you’re not going to distinguish between SVOD, AVOD and live,” Stankey said. “I think that’s where the market is going.”

A long-promised ad-supported version of HBO Max was promised for 2021, but no details were revealed about pricing or relationship to the full subscription offering. Stankey and other executives told analysts, though, that the AVOD numbers are baked into the company’s forecasts for 75 million to 90 million subscribers in the U.S., Europe and Latin America within five years.

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