After the recent fuss over the Netflix fate of evergreen sitcom Friends, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson reminded attendees at the UBS media conference that the newly extended license to the Warner Bros show is not exclusive.
“That means Friends can go onto our platform as well,” he said, alluding to the direct-to-consumer service that AT&T’s WarnerMedia will launch in late 2019.
“That’s content that we would definitely want on our platform and it’s very important to Netflix as well,” Stephenson said. Like its media peers, WarnerMedia is in the midst of sorting out which of its licenses will be exclusive and how much of its content will travel to other platforms. Traditional players have been making noises about pulling their content back from third-party streaming services in order to favor their own pipelines, but executing those changes is a complex process.
“There are probably going to need to be decisions made on every single one of these licenses,” Stephenson said. “Every deal is going to be different. We want to be very mindful of every distributor.”
Asked by UBS analyst John Hodulik about the goal for spending, Stephenson said, “We don’t have to spend another $11 billion to rival Netflix.” Instead, the caliber of the intellectual property at HBO, Warner Bros and Turner will carry the day, he argued.
“The goal is not to become another Netflix,” he said, calling the streaming service a “warehouse of content.” At the Goldman Sachs media conference earlier this fall, Stephenson offered a new dialectic, likening Netflix to Walmart, while HBO is more like Tiffany. At UBS, he sought to clarify that the comparison “wasn’t meant to be derogatory … it’s an impressive warehouse.” But he maintains that WarnerMedia’s boutique will ultimately bring in just as much revenue per square foot.
Asked about the government’s appeal of its antitrust lawsuit, which will be argued in front of three federal judges on Thursday and decided in early 2019, Stephenson expressed confidence in the company’s position.
“We had a number of appellate lawyers in that courtroom every day,” he said, referring to the spring trial of the initial suit. Their consensus was that U.S. District Court Judge Richard J. Leon “wrote a pretty tight order. … We feel like we have an order that can stand up.”
AT&T has gotten high marks from Wall Street in recent days after laying out its case for analysts on November 29. Several analysts have issued upgrades after gaining confidence in the company’s ability to pay down debt and manage through a period of pay-TV uncertainty.
After lagging for a couple of months, AT&T’s stock has perked up over the past few days, gaining 6%.