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AT&T Cuts Off DirecTV Competitor Dish from HBO and Cinemax; DoJ Claims Vindication

Phillip Dampier November 6, 2018 AT&T, Competition, Consumer News, Dish Network, Online Video, Sling 1 Comment

More than 2.5 million HBO and Cinemax customers are blacked out after AT&T cut off its biggest satellite rival Dish Networks and streaming provider Sling TV in a dispute the Department of Justice claims confirms its concerns that AT&T’s merger with Time Warner (Entertainment) would be bad for consumers.

It is the first time HBO has faced a contract renewal blackout on any platform in its 46-year history. But some groups feel it was predictable, considering AT&T owns DirecTV, Dish’s biggest rival. AT&T acquired HBO’s parent company, Time Warner (Entertainment) in 2018, changing its name to WarnerMedia. Last summer, Judge Richard J. Leon, senior district judge on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia gave AT&T approval of that $85 billion merger deal with no conditions, scoffing at Department of Justice claims that the merger would give AT&T undue market power that could be used to threaten competitors by depriving them access to popular cable networks and content or use of those networks in marketing materials to attract new subscribers.

As the DoJ pursues an appeal of Judge Leon’s decision, this week’s blackout seems to add ammunition to the government’s case against the merger.

“This behavior, unfortunately, is consistent with what the Department of Justice predicted would result from the merger,” a DoJ representative told Reuters. “We are hopeful the Court of Appeals will correct the errors of the District Court.”

A statement from Dish Networks harmoniously echoed the government’s position.

“Plain and simple, the merger created for AT&T immense power over consumers,” said Andy LeCuyer, senior vice president of programming at Dish, in a statement. “It seems AT&T is implementing a new strategy to shut off its recently acquired content from other distributors.”

Consumer groups like Public Knowledge also agree.

“In opposing the AT&T/Time Warner deal, opponents — including the Department of Justice — predicted that the newly combined company would have the incentive to withhold content, and would gain stronger leverage in negotiations like this one, ” said John Bergmayer, senior counsel at Public Knowledge. “AT&T stands to benefit if customers, frustrated by missing their favorite HBO shows, leave DISH to switch to DirecTV. Time Warner, as an independent company, did not have the incentive to hold out on HBO content in these situations before the merger. Now, consumers are the ones paying the price.”

Dish is accusing AT&T of demanding the satellite service pay for a guaranteed number of subscribers, regardless of how many consumers actually want to subscribe to HBO.

“AT&T is stacking the deck with free-for-life offerings to wireless customers and slashed prices on streaming services, effectively trying to force Dish to subsidize HBO on AT&T’s platforms,” said LeCuyer. “This is the exact anticompetitive behavior that critics of the AT&T-Time Warner merger warned us about. Every pay-TV company should be concerned. Rather than trying to force consumers onto their platforms, we suggest that AT&T try to achieve its financial goals through simple economics: if consumers want your product, they’ll pay for it. We hope AT&T will reconsider its demands and help us reach a swift, fair resolution.”

On its face, the nationwide blackout of HBO and Cinemax on America’s second largest satellite TV provider could be a public relations disaster for AT&T, depriving customers from accessing premium movie networks for the first time. But AT&T is fighting back in a coordinated media pushback.

In its defense, HBO is claiming Dish was not negotiating in good faith. Simon Sutton, HBO’s president and chief revenue officer: “Dish’s proposals and actions made it clear they never intended to seriously negotiate an agreement.”

“Past behavior shows that removing services from their customers is becoming all too common a negotiating tactic for them,” echoed AT&T.

“The Department of Justice collaborated closely with Dish in its unsuccessful lawsuit to block our merger,” a WarnerMedia spokesman said in a statement. “That collaboration continues to this day with Dish’s tactical decision to drop HBO – not the other way around. DoJ failed to prove its claims about HBO at trial and then abandoned them on appeal.”

As always, customers are caught in the middle. For now. AT&T and HBO are telling consumers to drop their Dish subscriptions and stream HBO and Cinemax online directly from their respective streaming platforms, or find another provider. Dish has told its satellite and Sling TV customers they will be credited on their bill for time they do not receive HBO or Cinemax. Dish is also offering customers a free preview of HDNET Movies.

Oral arguments for the DoJ’s appeal are scheduled to begin Dec. 6. Court documents revealed today the judges that will hear the appeal are: Judith W. Rogers, Robert L. Wilkins, and David B. Sentelle.

Spectrum Raises Price of “Everyday Low Priced Internet” to $24.99

Charter Communications, which does business as Spectrum, has raised the price of its legacy “Everyday Low Priced Internet (ELP),” a 2/1 Mbps service that Time Warner Cable introduced in 2013 for $14.99 a month. Our reader Todd writes the service is going up another $5 a month (after an earlier $5 rate increase) effective in November 2018, as his latest bill shows:

At Spectrum, we continue to enhance our services, offer more of the best entertainment choices and deliver the best value. We are committed to offering you products and services we are sure you will enjoy. Important Billing Update: Effective with your next billing statement, pricing will be adjusted for:

• Internet Services from $19.99 to $24.99.

New York residents were allowed to keep ELP at the price of $14.99 a month for several years after Charter’s acquisition of Time Warner Cable. But that deal requirement has since expired.

Spectrum continues to offer its income-qualified Spectrum Internet Assist ($14.99) for those receiving:

  • The National School Lunch Program (NSLP); free or reduced cost lunch
  • The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) of the NSLP
  • Supplemental Security Income ( ≥ age 65 only)

That service is also promoted in mailers in low-income neighborhoods without an income or benefit pre-qualification requirement, so anyone in those neighborhoods can sign up.

Spectrum Internet Assist offers:

  • High-speed 30/4 Mbps Internet with no data caps
  • Internet modem included
  • No contracts required
  • Add in-home WiFi for $5 more per month

Offer not valid for current Spectrum Internet subscribers.

At a new price of $24.99, Spectrum is clearly trying to convince customers still hanging on to the very low-speed internet product Time Warner Cable originally introduced five years ago to move on. Time Warner marketed ELP to budget conscious DSL customers willing to accept lower speed for a lower bill.

Spectrum’s latest promotions for 100-200 Mbps Standard internet start at $29.99 a month for up to two years, depending on your service area and local competition.

Updated 11/6 4:56pm ET: Thanks to our readers for some clarifications:

  • New York customers may not be subject to the rate increase. Existing ELP customers in N.Y. can keep ELP until at least May 17, 2019, as long as they do not make changes to their account that would result in their enrollment being canceled.
  • In former Maxx areas and under some other circumstances, ELP is 3/1 Mbps.

AT&T Pulls Plug on Turner Classic Movies/Warner Bros.’ FilmStruck Streaming Service

Phillip Dampier October 29, 2018 AT&T, Competition, Consumer News, Online Video 1 Comment

What began two years ago as the paid streaming service of Turner Classic Movies and grew into a highly respected catalog of 1,800 critically acclaimed films, has been axed by its new owner, AT&T, because it failed to attract a mainstream audience of subscribers.

FilmStruck was the five-star version of Netflix, a niche-streaming service that curated a vast collection of art house, international, independent, classic, and cult favorite films that was perceived by many critics as an essential treasure trove of films. Among the titles: “Casablanca,” “Rebel Without a Cause,” “Singin’ In the Rain,” “Citizen Kane,” “The Music Man,” “Bringing Up Baby,” “The Thin Man” and “Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?” from Warner Bros. Other classics included: “Babette’s Feast,” “Blow Out,” “Boyhood,” “Breaker Morant,” “Chicago,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” “My Life as a Dog,” “Our Song,” “The Player,” “A Room with a View,” “Seven Samurai,” “The Seventh Seal,” “Thelma & Louise,” “The Times of Harvey Milk” and “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.”

Last Friday morning, subscribers received a disappointing email:

We regret to inform you that effective November 29, 2018, FilmStruck will be shutting down. As a subscriber currently on a monthly plan, effective immediately you will no longer be billed for FilmStruck and will continue to have access to the service until November 29.

We would like to take this opportunity to thank you for being a FilmStruck subscriber. It has been our pleasure sharing the best of indie, art house, and classic Hollywood with you. FilmStruck was truly a labor of love, and in a world with an abundance of entertainment options – THANK YOU for choosing us.

If you have any questions please visit our FAQs or email the FilmStruck customer service team at [email protected] You can also manage your account by clicking here.

Thank You,
The FilmStruck Team

Customers were informed all levels of the FilmStruck service were being discontinued. This included the FilmStruck Only Monthly package, the FilmStruck+Criterion Monthly package, the FilmStruck+Criterion Annual package, and the FilmStruck+Criterion Student package. Customers on annual plans will receive a pro-rated refund of the remaining term of their subscription.

“We’re incredibly proud of the creativity and innovations produced by the talented and dedicated teams who worked on FilmStruck over the past two years. While FilmStruck has a very loyal fanbase, it remains largely a niche service,” AT&T’s Turner and WB Digital Networks said in a statement. “We plan to take key learnings from FilmStruck to help shape future business decisions in the direct-to-consumer space and redirect this investment back into our collective portfolios.”

In fact, AT&T has been pressing hard to wring cost savings out of its multi-billion dollar acquisition of Time Warner, Inc., now known as WarnerMedia. AT&T has sent a clear message it will not be in the niche content business.

On Oct. 16, AT&T ordered the closure of DramaFever, a Warner Bros. subscription video on demand service offering Korean dramas.

Last week, the company also announced it was pulling the plug on Super Deluxe, a Millennial-targeted content producer that claimed to reach 52 million 18-34 year olds, with 165 million views across Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram. AT&T called Super Deluxe “duplicative.”

The first sign that AT&T intended to be aggressive about changing Time Warner’s media businesses took place at a June “town hall” meeting with new HBO executive John Stankey, when employees learned AT&T was impatient with its newly acquired premium movie channel. Stankey made clear AT&T was gunning to push for major changes at HBO, pulling away from a decades-old format showing movies repeated a dozen times a month and a handful of very expensive, but award-winning TV series. The future of AT&T’s HBO will be closer to a Netflix competitor, releasing enough new shows and original content to attract mainstream audience viewing for several hours a day. To make this possible, AT&T will have to provide HBO with a bigger budget, funded in part from money transferred away from services like FilmStruck.

AT&T sources have leaked word that the company will eliminate most of Time Warner/WarnerMedia’s projects that are not proven major producers of revenue to fulfill promises to Wall Street that AT&T’s acquisition will eventually result in substantial financial growth for investors.

The Criterion Collection

FilmStruck subscribers and some Hollywood critics feel blindsided by the decision to shutter the streaming service. New Yorker author Richard Brody minced no words — “Nothing but contempt for the Mr. Potters who are shutting down FilmStruck,” Brody wrote in a scathing opinion piece.

Among consumers, disgust over the decision ranged from shock from Turner Classic Movies fans over AT&T’s decision to shut down a service showing movies not mired in violence, sex, and immorality, to film buffs disillusioned with Hollywood’s mainstream commercial films left furious over the abandonment of a central depository of independent, high quality cinema.

AT&T believes the next generation of streaming will be much less about putting together collections of old movies or producing niche, low-budget movies and series to appeal to the Netflix crowd. Instead, the next war will be fought over high-budget, high-expectation mainstream movies and series streamed on premium subscription services. WarnerMedia will launch its own paid streaming service in 2019. It will face similar paid services launching late next year from some of America’s largest media conglomerates, including Disney. Among Disney’s planned original productions for its forthcoming service, new episodes of the animated Star Wars: The Clone Wars, a new, premium budget live-action Star Wars series from Jungle Book and Iron Man director Jon Favreau, and shows based on both the High School Musical and Monsters, Inc. franchises.

Comcast Passes 30 Million Customers, Still Growing Broadband Subscribers

Comcast has passed 30 million customer relationships, mostly from adding new broadband customers that continue to disconnect from phone company DSL service.

In the last quarter, Comcast added 363,000 new broadband customers, a number the company calls its best third quarter subscriber add in 10 years, growing revenue by almost 10%.

High-speed residential and business internet service are among Comcast’s highest-margin businesses. Combining fast growth with sky-high profitability, Comcast boasted its broadband revenue is now the largest contributor to the cable company’s continued overall growth, reaching $4.3 billion this quarter, an increase of 9.6%.

“We have added over 1.2 million net new residential broadband customers in the last 12 months, including 334,000 net additions in the third quarter,” said Michael J. Cavanagh, Comcast’s chief financial officer. “Our offering is resonating with customers, as our consistent innovation and investment in our network has enabled us to stay ahead of customer expectations for not just high speeds, but also wall-to-wall Wi-Fi coverage and the ability to manage the increasing number of devices attached to their home networks.”

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts praised Comcast’s achievement of rolling out gigabit download speed to more customers than any other telecommunications company in the country.

“Our 1 gigabit internet is now available to nearly all of the 58 million homes and businesses passed in our footprint,” Roberts said. “This is the fastest deployment of gigabit speeds to the most locations in the country by anybody.”

Roberts claims Comcast will continue to build many of its future products and services around its broadband platform.

“We are investing to harness the capacity and capabilities of our network and deliver innovative differentiated experiences, which we believe gives us a long runway for further growth,” Roberts told investors on a morning conference call. “We are competing really well in residential broadband by offering customers the fastest speeds, most reliable Wi-Fi coverage in the home, and industry-leading Wi-Fi management and controls. We’ve branded our holistic broadband product as xFi, and continue to add new features, and we’re rolling out our xFi gateways and pods to further enhance the service.”

Comcast’s growing reliance on broadband products comes at the same time it faces additional cable television cord-cutting activity.

Cavanagh blamed online video streaming competitors like Sling TV and DirecTV Now for poaching its “low value” subscribers, admitting Comcast lost at least 95,000 net residential video customers in the last three months.

AT&T Nearing End of Fiber Buildout

AT&T will complete its fiber buildout to areas designated to get fiber to the home service by mid-2019, according to AT&T executives.

John J. Stephens, AT&T’s chief financial officer, told investors on a quarterly conference call that AT&T is on schedule to complete expansion of its fiber to the home commitment to 12.5 million new customer locations, a regulator-required commitment imposed on AT&T in return for approval of its acquisition of DirecTV.

“We are getting near the end of our fiber build project, which is basically laying the foundation for stabilizing our broadband and TV business profits in 2019,” added AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson.

AT&T’s expansion has targeted millions of customer locations for fiber to the home service, replacing the fiber to the neighborhood technology AT&T used for several years to support its U-verse service. AT&T officials say its fiber network will reach more than one million new customers during 2018. That network is key to two AT&T initiatives – its emerging 5G wireless service, which requires fiber connections to cell towers, and AT&T Fiber and its broadband offerings — helping boost internet and online video revenue.

“This shift to fiber is beginning to drive IP broadband ARPU growth,” said John M. Donovan, CEO of AT&T Communications, Inc. “The strategic pivot we’re making with video, combined with our execution with fiber gives us the confidence that we will stabilize Entertainment Group [profitability] next year.”

AT&T Fiber is critical to the company’s ability to compete in the home broadband market against cable operators that have recently boosted internet speeds. AT&T’s hybrid fiber-copper U-verse system proved inadequate to match the significantly faster internet speeds many cable operators are rolling out. But AT&T Fiber will not reach all the company’s landline customers. Rural areas are unlikely to ever receive fiber upgrades and AT&T has had long-term plans to scrap its rural landline network, transitioning those customers to wireless voice and internet using AT&T’s 4G LTE network.

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