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.