Rumors have been swirling in recent weeks about AT&T’s plans to sell off parts of its business, and even whether it will pull out of its media play altogether. In recent years, it has purchased a number of companies – including, most famously, Time Warner – in order to become a major player in the digital advertising sphere. Pursuing a line of business outside its traditional telco remit has become increasingly important in order to ‘keep up’ with key competitors Verizon and Comcast, who have both expanded their offerings: Verizon invested in a fiber-optic network for high-speed internet, while Comcast has focused on bundling content, mobile, internet, cable and landline. AT&T’s proposition, on the other hand, was seen by many as somewhat antiquated; this could only be remedied by upping its technological capabilities through investment or acquisition. AT&T chose the acquisition of companies that would make it a major player in digital advertising. This, said new CEO John Stankey, would allow it to ‘compete with companies that are incredibly strong and capable, like the Googles, Amazons and Apples of the world – and so we’re playing big’.
Rumors that DirecTV will be sold off
AT&T started its journey into advertising with the acquisition of DirecTV for $49 billion in 2015; however, it made the purchase just as the TV market started to change dramatically and irrevocably. It was a time when the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime started to make cord-cutting a viable option, and new live TV players like Hulu Live and YouTube TV have since made inroads into the appointment viewing arena. Subscription numbers have been falling, so it is perhaps unsurprising that AT&T is under pressure from shareholders to offload the unit, even though it is now reportedly worth less than half what AT&T paid for it.
Digital advertising moves
Having acquired a source of inventory for its digital advertising capabilities, AT&T then purchased AppNexus to serve as the foundation of Xandr, its programmatic marketplace for targeted TV and digital video advertising. To complete its digital advertising triumvirate, the telco giant famously acquired media titan Time Warner in 2018, giving it access to assets such as HBO, the newly launched streaming platform HBO Max, Warner Bros and CNN.
Expanding digital capabilities
So have these big purchases, which have left AT&T in a large amount of debt, paid off? AT&T’s rumored sale of DirecTV led to speculation that it was also seeking to offload Xandr (this was later dismissed by CFO John Stephens) and that led some to wonder if Warner Media (as Time Warner was rebranded) was also for the chop. As far as we know, AT&T is not entertaining these ideas at all; WarnerMedia is an important revenue-driver for the telco giant, and Xandr has recently partnered with the Dentsu Aegis Network (DAN) in Asia to create Dentsu Curate, which leverages Xandr’s tech platform to create a new programmatic supply solution. Xandr was struggling to make its product offering appealing as it was unable to pull together inventory from enough platforms to make it interesting to advertisers; the Dentsu move could help address this issue and increase Xandr’s reach. It will also be enhanced by the launch of HBO Max’s advertising-supported tier in 2021.
Could bundling streaming services be part of AT&T’s future?
With the uptick in the streaming wars at the start of this year, many consumers are likely wondering whether they want to pay for several subscriptions at once – the cost could start to look like the high cable costs that led to so many cutting the cord. AT&T’s ownership of WarnerMedia, particularly HBO Max, could make it a viable option to start ‘bundling’ streaming services. These streaming bundles could be used to incentivize consumers to stick with AT&T’s telco services and will, of course, create an even richer inventory list for Xandr – a win-win situation for AT&T.
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