WarnerMedia’s recent restructuring was “spot on,” and the company accelerated those changes to the media division — which had been eyed for 2021 — because of the COVID pandemic to boost the profile of the HBO Max streaming service, according to AT&T CEO John Stankey.
Stankey, speaking Monday at the Wall Street Journal’s WSJ Live streaming conference, praised the changes made by WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar, the former Hulu chief who started in the role on May 1. The organizational revamp has “been nothing short of significant and absolutely spot on in terms of the direction,” Stankey said.
In August, WarnerMedia laid off hundreds of employees across Warner Bros., HBO and DC Entertainment. That came after a major management shakeup by Kilar, under which HBO Max content leaders Robert Greenblatt and Kevin Reilly were let go and Warner Bros. CEO Ann Sarnoff assumed additional oversight over content for HBO Max and basic cable networks. Andy Forssell, general manager of HBO Max, was put in charge of a new HBO Max business group and is overseeing international expansion.
After COVID hit in the spring, large swaths of WarnerMedia’s revenue base “disappeared,” Stankey said, with no movies released in theaters and sports leagues shut down. “So very quickly, it was very clear a new day had dawned,” he said.
Under the new WarnerMedia structure, instead of “having multiple smokestacks where content is greenlit,” the company has a focused approach to its investment in content, according to Stankey. He cited recent restructuring moves at NBCUniversal and Disney, also designed to accelerate their opportunity to capitalize on direct-to-consumer streaming.
Stankey praised longtime HBO programming exec Casey Bloys as a “very, very talented programmer” who is now overseeing both HBO and HBO Max originals slates. While the traditional HBO brand has been aimed at an older adult demo, Bloys’ job is to “allocate content [spending to] hit that entire breadth of the family” with HBO Max, Stankey said.
Stankey declined to provide any update on HBO Max subscriber numbers, claiming that “I’m incredibly happy with where we are” and that HBO Max is ahead of the sub counts it expected to have at this stage. In terms of engagement, HBO Max users have spent more than an hour per day with the service, also exceeding targets.
But, the AT&T CEO said, “we still have work to get the scaling done” for the HBO Max service. AT&T is scheduled to release third-quarter 2020 results on Thursday, Oct. 22, before the market opens.
In announcing Q2 results, AT&T said about 3 million new subscribers purchased HBO Max directly from WarnerMedia via online signups in the roughly one-month period following its launch. There were 4.1 million total activations of the HBO Max app — meaning that the vast majority of HBO’s existing subscribers had not yet accessed HBO Max even though it is available for no extra charge to those who already pay for HBO. The company said it had 36.3 million total U.S. subscribers to HBO Max and HBO as of the end of Q2 (of which 26.6 million were either HBO Max subscribers or existing HBO customers eligible to upgrade to HBO Max).
In his WSJ Tech Live appearance, Stankey argued that the HBO launch Max actually brought HBO — which he said had “plateaued” at around 35 million U.S. subscribers for the last five years — back to growth.
Stankey was asked by interviewer WSJ editor-in-chief Matt Murray about the rise of digital platforms as “gatekeepers,” likening their clout to AT&T’s monopoly control of telecommunications decades ago. Murray cited “Fortnite” maker Epic Games’s ongoing battle with Apple over the tech giant’s App Store practices. Stankey cited “Amazon Fire distribution” among platforms that have aggregated a “huge amount” of consumers and that potentially wield an unfair advantage in the market.
WarnerMedia has been unable to reach a deal to distribute HBO Max on Amazon’s Fire TV and Roku, nearly five months after the streamer’s debut. “Where the bottlenecks are sometimes occurring are in these commercial agreements,” said Stankey, who raised the question of whether some players have “market power above and beyond what’s reasonable for innovation.”
Stankey declined to comment on recent reports that AT&T is continuing to look at offloading DirecTV or selling its digital advertising business. That said, he reiterated that the company is looking to see if there opportunities to shed “businesses that aren’t positioned for long-term growth” that would be “distractions” for the management team. He added that AT&T is “not backing away from advertising in any way shape or form.”
Stankey, wearing a blue AT&T windbreaker, said his favorite HBO show is “Westworld” (“You have to think a lot when you watch it”) but he that other originals are close, including “Succession” and “Watchmen.” Regarding “Watchmen,” he was “incredibly impressed” with the series and is in “in the camp of doing another season if we could figure out a way to do that.”