AT&T signs content mega-deal with Bad Robot Productions

US telecoms and media giant AT&T has doubled-down on its Time Warner acquisition by committing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars more.

The deal is with Bad Robot Productions, which is run by Hollywood figure JJ Abrams and his wife Katie McGrath. The total value of the deal hasn’t been revealed, but media speculation ranges between $250-$500 million. Bad Robot gets involved in movies, TV, games and digital platforms and it looks like it will devote itself entirely to AT&T subsidiary Warner Media for the duration of the deal.

“WarnerMedia and AT&T are delighted to launch a long-term collaboration with our world-class partners and colleagues JJ Abrams and Katie McGrath,” said AT&T COO and CEO of WanrerMedia John Stankey. “We are extremely excited about the potential to deliver remarkable and memorable stories and characters across multiple platforms to audiences around the world.

“JJ, Katie and all of Bad Robot bring extraordinary vision, exquisite filmmaking, and exemplary industry leadership to this endeavour and our company. Across all forms of content, we are uniquely positioned to offer our creative partners a multitude of platforms to realize their artistic goals and ambitions, and to ensure that their stories have the best possible opportunity to connect with the right audience.”

“It is a thrill for Katie, Brian (Weinstein) and me and the rest of our team at Bad Robot to call WarnerMedia our company’s new home,” said Abrams. “John Stankey has a powerful vision for the future of WarnerMedia and is committed to storytelling that connects people around the world. We are excited and gratified to be a part of this new chapter under his and Ann Sarnoff’s thoughtful leadership.

“I could go on for hours, and probably will, about the extraordinary Peter Roth and the entire Warner’s television group, with whom we’ve worked for over a decade, and I’ve wanted to collaborate with Toby Emmerich and his team for as long as I can remember. I am grateful for the chance to write, produce and direct work for this incredible company, and to help create films and series with a diverse and vast collection of inspiring storytellers. We can’t wait to get started.”

With the launch of Apple + and Disney + in addition to the deep pockets of Netflix and Amazon the content world has never been more competitive. There’s an arms race underway regarding investment in premium content so AT&T needs to at least keep up if hopes to make its massive Time Warner acquisition a success.

AT&T gets streaming with HBO Max

Gone are the days when the consumer could get all the content they wanted in one place as AT&T’s WarnerMedia joins the streaming landgrab.

With Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, Disney, HBO and numerous other streaming services on the market before too long, the fragmentation of content is looking like it could be a serious problem for the consumer. Whether splitting the spoils has an overarching negative impact on the segments profits remains to be seen, but customers wallets can only be pushed so far; how many streaming services can each customer be expected to have?

That said, AT&T is in a strong position with this proposition. In HBO, it owns a lot of promising content already, playing into consumer nostalgia, and it does seem to be heading in the right direction in terms of original programming.

“HBO Max will bring together the diverse riches of WarnerMedia to create programming and user experiences not seen before in a streaming platform,” said Robert Greenblatt, Chairman of WarnerMedia Entertainment and Direct-To-Consumer.

“HBO’s world-class programming leads the way, the quality of which will be the guiding principle for our new array of Max Originals, our exciting acquisitions, and the very best of the Warner Bros. libraries, starting with the phenomenon that is ‘Friends’.”

With the service set to debut in Spring 2020, AT&T is promising 10,000 hours of programming from the outset. Full series of ‘Fresh Prince of Bel Air’, ‘Friends’ and ‘Pretty Little Liars’ will feature in the content library, as well as new dramas such as ‘Batwoman’ and ‘Katy Keene’.

Looking at future Max Original series, the list is quite extensive. ‘Dune: The Sisterhood’ is an adaptation of Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson’s book based in the world created by Frank Herbert’s book Dune. ‘Lovecraft Country’ is a horror series based on a novel by Matt Ruff. ‘The Plot Against America’ will be a reimagined history based on Phillip Roth’s novel.

The ingredients are all in place to ensure AT&T makes a sustained stab at cracking the streaming market which has been dominated by the OTTs to date. There are a couple of questions which remain however.

Firstly, pricing. Can executives price the service competitively while also sustaining investments in content? Secondly, experience. Will the platform meet the high-expectations set by consumers thanks to the high-bar set by Netflix? And finally, culture. Will AT&T allow WarnerMedia to operate as a media business or will it impose the traditional mentality of telcos onto the business?

AT&T has bet big on the content world and it can ill-afford to fluff its lines on its debut. Having signed an $85 billion deal to acquire Time Warner and spent what seems like decades battling various government departments to authorise the transaction, the telco will need to see some ROI sooner rather than later.

The question is whether the momentum in the streaming world can be sustained. Platforms like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime were attractive in the early days because there was consolidation of content onto a single library. With more streaming services becoming available, the fragmentation of content might well become a problem before too long. Consumers will have to make choices on what service to subscribe to, limiting the profits of the individual providers.

The days of subscribing to everything might be a thing of the past before too long; wallets can only be pushed so far.

Diversification into profitable segments is certainly a sensible strategy in the days of meagre connectivity profits, but $85 billion is a lot to spend on a hunch.