AT&T’s executive shuffle puts WarnerMedia chief in charge of broadband service

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

AT&T made two key executive promotions yesterday, naming erstwhile technology chief Jeff McElfresh to head up its broadband and telephone (landline and mobile) businesses, as well as DirecTv, and promoting WarnerMedia head John Stankey to president and chief operating officer, making him the clear second in command to chairman and CEO Randall Stephenson.

Stankey’s new job, according to an AT&T press release is “bringing together the distinct and complimentary capabilities of AT&T Communications, WarnerMedia and [advertising subsidiary] Xandr to deliver…the benefits of a modern media company”.

He’s a career AT&T insider. For the present, Stankey’s “current WarnerMedia executive team” will report to him, meaning he’ll still be in charge of day to day operations there, while also having executive authority over AT&T’s distribution and advertising assets. It’s an open question whether he’ll try to use those assets, and the control over consumer broadband connections that come with them, to increase the profitability of the content arm. The republican majority on the Federal Communications Commission already cleared the path for him to do that, all he needs to do is start walking down it.

According to an update by The Information’s Jessica Toonkel, the promotion leaves everyone wondering whether Stephenson will stick around, and if he doesn’t, then what happens with WarnerMedia…

AT&T’s mandatory retirement age is 65 for top executives and Stephenson is only 59, which suggests there is no urgency. And as Stankey is 56, if Stephenson doesn’t retire early, Stankey may miss out entirely. If Stephenson waits another six years, AT&T’s board might focus on the next generation. But I hear Stephenson may choose to go earlier, which would give Stankey a shot.

That raises the question of who would succeed Stankey at WarnerMedia, including whether they bring someone in from outside. Cue the speculation. There are a lot of seasoned entertainment executives who are in circulation, thanks to various mergers.

So far, the trend has been for “seasoned entertainment executives” to walk away from AT&T’s management team.