AT&T reportedly considering TV U-turn

A report is suggesting AT&T is mulling over the prospect of selling its DirecTV assets as pressure mounts on the management team.

With the Elliott Management vultures circling overhead and an investor lawsuit hitting the New York District Court, AT&T is reportedly considering its options. Wall Street Journal sources are suggesting a divestment could be on the cards, a humbling move for AT&T executives who are seeing their diversification strategy crumble before their very eyes.

Although the sale of DirecTV is still a slim possibility, some executives might believe this is the best way in which to save their jobs. To demonstrate the scale of this potential outcome, cast your mind back to May 2018, a critical point during the AT&T defence of its Time Warner acquisition.

While the Department of Justice was looking for means to block the acquisition, for a brief moment, a concession was offered to the team; divest DirecTV assets and we’ll OK the Time Warner deal. This was almost immediately shot down by CEO Randall Stephenson, the purpose of Time Warner was to bolster the DirecTV offering.

This is the conundrum which the executive team is facing. The long-term business plan is sound; a purchase of an excellent content creation business to marry the delivery platform could create a notable share of the entertainment segment. However, the short-term threats might well force the team into a re-think.

Last week, a coalition of investors filed a lawsuit, naming a series of AT&T executives as defendants, accusing the telco of misleading executives over the performance of DirecTV. As the success of the DirecTV acquisition was being used to justify the Time Warner acquisition, the investors seemingly feeling violated, believing the gains were exaggerated or at least the longevity of the gains.

Perhaps more worryingly however was the emergence of Elliott Management. This vulture fund specialises in seeking undervalued businesses and introducing radical changes to increase dividends and share price. More often that not, when Elliott Management gets its claws into a business, executives usually find themselves heading towards the exit and a major restructure of the strategy is put in place.

If the sources are to be believed, this might well be a move towards appeasing the criticism before the HR department starts drafting emails.

What is worth noting, is this might well turn into nothing. Rumours of this magnitude might well be true, but the idea of discussing a divestment and then actioning these ambitions are two very different points of consideration. One question which remains unanswered is who would buy the assets?

AT&T is not going to be selling the business for pennies on the pound, therefore the potential purchaser will have to have a considerable bank account. It is also less clear whether this is a complete divestment or just the satellite assets. If it is just the ‘traditional’ content business, with the streaming side attached, this looks much less attractive to a potential investor.

One option could be a sale to Dish, a rival satellite TV provider. A merger of the two entities has been quashed by competition authorities in the past, though as there is now much larger variety of content options for the consumer it might be a possibility. That said, considering Dish is working through the $5 billion acquisition of the Boost prepaid mobile brand, it might not have the appetite for another large transaction.

Although this is a move which many AT&T executives will struggle to stomach, perhaps survival instincts have kicked-in.

The acquisition of DirecTV and Time Warner was supposed to be a means of diversifying the business, chasing the ever-increasing dollars which are being spent on digital entertainment by consumers and digital advertising by corporates. This was supposed to be a move to future-proof the business and drive growth opportunities.

Without DirecTV, the entertainment unit looks quite hollow. The AT&T business will look much more like a traditional telco, one which is built around the decreasingly profitable and increasingly commoditised business of connectivity. Many companies are looking to leverage their relationship with customers with additional services, and for AT&T, this was supposed to be video.

What is worth noting, is the divestment looks unlikely at the moment. It might happen, but it might well be more sensible for a spin-off and partial divestment. This would recover funds, partially satisfying the vultures at Elliott Management, while also keeping some skin in the game. It would also allow for the appointment of a new management team, perhaps one which is more aligned with content as opposed to the current set-up which is primarily focused on telco.

However, the ability of Elliott Management to cause chaos in a business when it has outlined its intentions should not be underestimated. This is a firm which has a track-record in getting its own way and raising support from other investors. Above all else, the AT&T management team should be very concerned about their future at the telco.

AT&T sued for massaging DirecTV figures

If there is a headache in the shape of activist investor Elliott Management already, AT&T executives will be reaching for the aspirin once again as investors sue over suspect figures.

Filed in the US District Court for Southern New York, Melvin Gross is the man leading a coalition of investors to sue AT&T, suggesting the management team misled investors over the performance of its DirecTV video products. The massaged figures might be viewed as an attempt to save face (as well as jobs), though the lawsuit also suggests executives were attempting to justify the incredibly expensive acquisition of Time Warner through nefarious means.

“Moreover, several of the Executive Defendants had strong personal interests in promoting the success of DirecTV Now in order to persuade the market of the logic behind the Time Warner Acquisition,” the filing states.

“The failure of DirecTV Now, prior to the closing of the Acquisition, could have jeopardized the transaction, a result that would have been disastrous for the Defendants.”

Through a combination of fake email addresses and additional charges for customers without consent, practises which were allegedly encouraged by managers, AT&T is effectively accused of fraud. Investors are also suggesting the executive team presented misleading numbers down the omission of promotional numbers. 500,000 net adds disappeared once a three month for $10 deal disappeared, though this risk was apparently not appropriately communicated.

By hyping the performance of DirecTV Now, investors might be encouraged to double-down on momentum in the content unit, funding another monstrous acquisition. However, as the lawsuit states, investors might not be buoyed to spend $108.7 billion (including debt) should the 2014, $67.1 billion DirecTV purchase be viewed as a failure.

This is somewhat of a conspiracy theory, though the DirecTV Now numbers were not anywhere near as attractive during the financial earnings call once AT&T was committed to the Time Warner transaction. As you can see from the table below, the timing is a bit suspicious:

Period Net adds (loss in brackets)
Q2 2019 (168,000)
Q1 2019 (83,000)
Q4 2018 (267,000)
Q3 2018 49,000
Q2 2018 342,000
Q1 2018 312,000
Q4 2017 368,000
Q3 2017 296,000

The Time Warner acquisition was first announced in October 2016 and closed in June 2018. In the financial earnings call following the closure of the transaction (Q3 2018), the DirecTV gains started to crumble away.

With the aggressive expansion and success the AT&T executive team was suggesting up-to Q2 2018, investors will of course have been enthusiastic about adding to the momentum. On the other side, you can see why some are reasonably irked by the reality of the situation. It does appear the fact many of these gains were either irresponsibly attributed or unlikely to be anything more than short-term gain.

Although DirecTV is the focal point of the lawsuit, the Time Warner acquisition is the central cog which the saga flows around.

The content strategy from AT&T is relatively simple. The DirecTV acquisition offered a mobile-friendly content delivery model, and the Time Warner purchase offered a horde of content allowing the telco to compound gains. Both, theoretically, work independently, but the combination is more attractive if you have a bank account big enough to fund the expansion.

However, as the lawsuit suggests, investors might be a bit sheepish in giving the greenlight to a $108 billion acquisition if the ROI from the $67 billion purchase are not living up to the original promise. The AT&T theory and business model is theoretically sound, though if the lawsuit is successful, heads may roll due to the route the management team took to get to the finish line.

The content bet from AT&T is already looking suspect, and this lawsuit will not help the situation.

Alongside this filing, the management team is also under attack from Elliott Management, the vulture fund which specialises in restructuring businesses, promoting a shift towards a utilitised business model and realising short/mid-term gains through increased dividends and share price increases.

The activist investor has taken a $3.2 billion stake in AT&T and has recently sent a letter to shareholders attacking the AT&T strategy and competency of the management team. The content business has come under-fire, with Elliott Management pushing for divestments and a more stringent focus on traditional connectivity products. It’s a strategy which could force the telco down the utilitisation path, something which is unlikely to benefit the business in the long-term.

The emergence of this lawsuit certainly aids the Elliott Management case, however we think the timing is more coincidental. Some might suggest the vulture fund is behind the lawsuit, but we think it is more a case of pleasant timing.

For the AT&T management team, this is a potential disaster. Not only do these executives have an aggressive activist investor calling for their heads, they have now been named in the lawsuit, with the complainants suggesting they encouraged under-handed tactics to directly mislead the market. This is turning into a very uncomfortable month for the AT&T management team.

AT&T just misplaced 267k DirecTV Now subs, but it’s OK

The AT&T earnings call was somewhat of a mixed bag of results, with gains on mobile but it somewhat irresponsibly managed to misplace 267,000 DirecTV Now subscribers; its ok says CEO.

Digging down into the numbers always tends to lead to many twists and turns, but the big one is DirecTV Now, the telcos attempt to blend into differentiation and get ahead of the cord cutting generation. This has not exactly been a rip-roaring success for the business so far but losing 267,000 subscribers in three months is a headline which will take some beating.

So where did they go? According to the business, they were basically just allowed to leave. With $10 a month promotional subscriptions biting down hard on profitability, the powers-that-be seemingly decided to cut the losses. The company scaled back promotions and the number of customers on entry-level plans declined significantly, however on a more positive note, the number of premium subscriptions remained stable.

Unfortunately for AT&T, stable will not cut the grade anymore. Having made the questionable decision to acquire DirecTV for $67 billion in mid-2015, some would have hoped the outcome would be more than ‘stable’ three years later. With another whopper of an acquisition taking place during this three-year period, AT&T will be hoping to scale up success before too long if it is to reduce the debt weighing down the spreadsheets.

“Our top priority for 2018 and 2019 is reducing our debt and I couldn’t be more pleased with how we closed the year,” said CEO Randall Stephenson. “In 2018, we generated record free cash flow while investing at near-record levels.”

The other acquisition, WarnerMedia, seems to be having a better time of it than DirecTV. Total WarnerMedia revenues were $9.2 billion, up 5.9% year over year, primarily driven by higher Warner Bros revenues, consolidation of Otter Media and higher affiliate subscription revenues at Turner. What remains to be seen is whether this can continue. WarnerMedia is a media company which is awaiting the full integration and transformation wonders from AT&T. What impact this risk-adverse, lethargic and traditional business will have on the media giant is unknown in the long-run.

Elsewhere in the business, things were a little more positive. The team added 134,000 valuable post-paid subscriptions in the wireless business, though this remained below expectations, with the total now up to 153 million. Total revenues were up15.2% to $47.99 billion though this was also below analysts’ estimates of $48.5 billion. A bit more positive, than DirecTV’s car crash, but still not good enough according to Wall Street as share price declined 4.5%.

DirecTV users can voice control their set-top boxes with Alexa

DirecTV announced today that users of several models of its set-top boxes will be able to select programs, start and stop play, as well as control recording functions with voice, using Amazon’s AI personal assistant Alexa.

The announcement on its official Twitter account, supported by a glossy picture, may look a giant leap for DirecTV, but is only a small step for the AI industry, in a perverse application of Neil Armstrong’s famous line. This is not only because DirecTV is late. Amazon updated its Video Skill API in March this year, to support apps to add recording, launcher, and state reporting functions. Four poster boys were listed as leading vendors to endorse the updates, DISH, Verizon, TiVo, and DirecTV. They largely came to the party in that chronological order.

To make voice bots work properly is tricky, and no one has done a fantastic job. In the set-top box use case, if there is one function that users have to go back to the physical remote control to perform, it will defeat the whole purpose of voice control user interface. In an earlier iteration of Alexa powered DISH menu, users could not open the top level “Guide”, nor did the menu recognise Netflix as a channel.

Even if the functions are enriched, there is also the thorny issues of accuracy, ambient noise, and accents, which can put users off. Different research has shown that large number of users would give up voice bots like Siri, Cortana, Google Home, etc. after registering high enthusiasm at the beginning.

Probably most critically there is the concern for privacy. Alexa is among the better performers among competing voice bots, largely thanks Echo, which has dominated the smart speaker market. However, Alexa found itself famously, or infamously, in the centre of an Echo “eavesdropping” controversy in May this year, missing the background conversation as voice command, according to Amazon’s version of the story.

So, there is still a long way to go before we can all embrace voice control both hands free and worry free. Before that, all progress will just be small steps.