Media Companies Scramble to Build a Better Bundle (Column)

Even in a TV landscape strewn with new streaming services, media is still all about the bundle. 

The rise of mighty new platforms bolstered with high-wattage content has been heralded as evidence of the great un-bundling in the pay-TV sector, a trend that does not bode well for Hollywood’s balance sheets. But as the TV marketplace has expanded over the past year, most of the major players are focused on using their marquee content to assemble their own proprietary bundles.

Disney, ViacomCBS, Discovery and Comcast are all focused on stitching together a patchwork quilt of platform options to draw as many greenbacks as possible out of consumers on a monthly basis. Netflix, of course, remains a major exception.

AT&T CEO John Stankey sounded downright giddy on the company’s first quarter earnings call Thursday as he talked up the growth that HBO Max has seen since debuting late last May. Most importantly, he noted that the vision that drove AT&T to acquire Time Warner — using high-wattage programming to draw consumers to a bundle of wireless phone and broadband service — is starting to hum.

“This demonstrates the formula works,” Stankey told analysts. “The strategy of attaching content to broadband — that’s been really good in terms of driving those customer [sales] and driving churn down.”

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AT&T’s earnings call sounded a lot like Comcast’s with a number of questions about the trajectory and pacing of its broadband growth. Like Comcast, AT&T also has regional limitations on its offering that it hopes to overcome in the U.S. eventually as 5G technology becomes the standard across the land.

AT&T is promising to roll out an ad-supported version of HBO Max in June. The plan seems to be shaping up to offer a mix of free and pay options, with the latter priced much lower than the $15 cost of the existing HBO Max service.

Every earnings cycle these days includes the new $64 million question of how many winners and losers there will be when the rubber meets the road for performance on new streamers launched by traditional media companies. Netflix, which remains the big fish in the global market, is not feeling the heat, co-CEO Reed Hastings confidently told investors on April 20. That confidence reinforces his belief that Netflix doesn’t have to bolt on a bunch of other operations to remain competitive. And Hastings made the point that Netflix hasn’t been without stiff competition to date.

“We’ve been competing with Amazon Prime for 13 years, with Hulu for 14 years. It’s always been very competitive with linear TV, too,” Hastings said. “So there is no real change that we can detect in the competitive environment. It’s always been high and remains high.”

Moreover, Hastings added that Netflix’s biggest competitors to date remain the collective force of old-fashioned linear TV, followed by YouTube. That ranking would only seem to reinforce the value of a bundled offering to consumers who will surely start to balk at having to juggle a half-dozen or more bills a month just to keep up with the buzziest shows on the virtual dial these days.

Stankey, like Hastings, voiced confidence in the general economic recovery under way after the hardships of the pandemic. AT&T didn’t give any updated guidance on the call. But Stankey must like what he sees on the Q2 horizon, based on his closing remarks on Thursday.

He told analysts, “I look forward to talking to you 90 days from now.”

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