AT&T has an odd way of turning anti-trust victory into market domination

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

In the wake of a federal appeals court victory, AT&T moved quickly to consolidate control over the Time-Warner media companies it now owns. The apparent strategy is to meet Netflix head on as a content competitor. The initial signs are not encouraging.

As well reported by Jessica Toonkel in The Information, the top executives of HBO and Turner, two of the three Time Warner divisions acquired by AT&T (the third is the Warner Bros. studio), are gone. According to Toonkel’s article, AT&T wants to crank up the content production pace…

HBO is one of Time Warner’s crown jewels, the top ranked premium cable channel long known for hit shows ranging from “The Sopranos” to “Game of Thrones.” But the growth of Netflix has spotlight how little HBO has evolved in recent years. The company makes a handful of shows, compared to the hundreds made by Netflix. It resisted small changes, such as putting all episodes of its shows on the air at once, unlike Netflix. Shortly after the AT&T takeover, AT&T executives began signalling they wanted HBO to make more shows.

I worked with HBO in the mid-nineties, as the company I was working for – U.S. Satellite Broadcasting – was launching what eventually became DirecTv, another AT&T acquisition.

HBO has evolved over the past 25 years, but its core remains unchanged: it’s a video packaging and distribution company that produces a relative handful of marquee jewels, but relies on the broader industry for most of its content. The same might be said of Netflix, except that its hand is a lot bigger and its tolerance for imperfect gems is a lot higher.

Netflix produces excellent films and series, but that’s fuelled by a blockbuster budget – $13 billion in 2018 by one estimate – that’s higher than any mainstream studio. It also has a reputation for giving producers and directors a free hand, with little interference from the suits.

Money and creative freedom are two of three essential ingredients to success in Hollywood. The third is personal relationships, something the old HBO excelled at building and maintaining. The business doesn’t work like a car factory. You can’t just add a second shift and send in the bean counters. With neither the budget or the corporate culture to match Netflix, AT&T is taking a huge risk by disrupting those relationships.