All The Mergers In The World Apparently Can't Save AT&T From Cord Cutting
from the old-school dept
Over the last five years AT&T and Verizon have been desperately trying to pivot from stodgy, protectionist old telcos — to sexy new Millennial media juggernauts. And while this pivot effort has been notably expensive, the net result has been somewhat underwhelming. Verizon, for example, spent billions to gobble up AOL and Yahoo, but its lack of savvy in the space has so far culminated in a privacy scandal, a major hacking scandal, a quickly shuttered website where reporters couldn’t write about controversial subjects, and a fairly shitty Millennial streaming service that even Verizon’s own media partners have called a “dud.”
Verizon’s new CEO Hans Vestberg appears to have gotten the message (that stodgy old telcos kind of suck at disruption and innovation) and has been shifting Verizon back toward its core competency: running networks.
AT&T’s efforts have been notably more expensive than Verizon’s, but just as underwhelming. The company first decided to shell out $70 billion for a satellite TV provider (DirecTV) on the eve of the cord cutting revolution. And, after a lengthy DOJ lawsuit, shelled out another $89 billion for Time Warner in a quest to gain broader media and advertising relevance. That was paired with the launch of a new streaming service, DirecTV Now, which the company hoped would help it beat back the tide of cord cutting.
Despite hundreds of billions in acquisition costs and debt, it’s not working. The company saw a another net loss of 297,000 TV customers last quarter as the company’s traditional TV services (DirecTV and AT&T’s IPTV service) lost 346,000 subscribers, and the company’s shiny new DirecTV Now service only added 49,000 subscribers during the third quarter. To be fair, AT&T actually is more forward thinking than a lot of other cable operators in that it’s embracing cheaper streaming alternatives fully. But the company still couldn’t help itself when it came to quickly pushing price hikes, the primary reason for last quarter’s dip:
“In July, AT&T raised DirecTV Now prices by $5 per month across the board in hopes of making the service profitable. More importantly, AT&T also stopped offering incredible device deals to new subscribers. Until this summer, new customers could get a free Roku Streaming Stick (regularly $50) with a month of $35 prepaid service, or a free Apple TV 4K (regularly $180) with three months of prepaid service at $105. There was nothing stopping customers from signing up, immediately canceling, and walking away with a new streaming device at far below retail prices.”
On the plus side, AT&T’s strategy of getting out ahead of the streaming revolution isn’t entirely unsound. You’d rather be ahead of a trend and take some early hits, than be utterly blindsided while sticking to old habits (oh hi ESPN, didn’t see you standing there). But AT&T being, well, AT&T, you just know it won’t be able to help itself when it comes to nickel-and-diming its users, something that’s going to be made immeasurably easier if it’s successful at gutting both federal and state consumer protection authority.