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AT&T Reportedly Looking for a Buyer for DirecTV, But Some Are Skeptical a Deal Can Be Done

Just five years after buying DirecTV for $49 billion, AT&T is looking to sell the satellite TV service after losing over 10 million customers because of repeated price hikes, network blackouts, and the ongoing shift to streaming online video.

The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that AT&T was in talks with private equity firms, potentially including Apollo Global Management and Platinum Equity about the possibility of acquiring DirecTV and taking the service private.

Regardless of who buys the service, AT&T might lose $30 billion on the five-year-old venture, buying high and selling low at a price that could drop below $20 billion. AT&T is rapidly losing its television customers. More than six million people have dropped TV packages from AT&T’s U-verse TV and satellite provider DirecTV in the last two years. Craig Moffett, an analyst with MoffettNathanson, told the New York Post even at a rumored discount sale price of $20 billion, AT&T may have “overvalued” the “albatross.”

Moffett is skeptical buyers will close a deal, considering AT&T’s remaining 17.7 million television customers are still in the mood to cancel, with an “astounding” 18% of customers leaving each year.

But even with the customer losses, DirecTV moves a lot of money through its operations, making it at least look attractive on certain buyers’ books. DirecTV’s cash flow helped AT&T’s own unimpressive earnings, adding $22 billion to AT&T’s balance sheet since buying the satellite company. A buyout by a private equity firm could further slowly drain DirecTV by saddling it with debt, secured in part by its still healthy cash flow. A buyer could also attract investors by borrowing even more to pay out handsome dividend bonuses. That could leave DirecTV hopelessly hobbled in debt, leaving DirecTV in an “inevitable” position of having to merge with its chief competitor, Dish Network, or face eventual bankruptcy. If that were to happen, rural Americans could face a satellite TV monopoly as their only choice for live video entertainment.

DirecTV customers report innovation at the satellite service seems to have disappeared since AT&T took over. Very little has changed with the service in the past few years, except for AT&T raising prices and getting stingier with promotions. Many rural DirecTV customers still depend on satellite television because of a lack of over the air reception or broadband service. For these customers, saving money on television service means having to bounce back and forth between Dish Network and DirecTV, trying to keep a discounted promotion active on their account. If the two satellite services eventually merge, that will cease.

After AT&T acquired Time Warner (Entertainment), insiders report many of AT&T’s legacy businesses, including DirecTV and U-verse, have become afterthoughts. AT&T’s bigger priorities now lie with its new 5G wireless service and HBO Max, its new online video service. But the company’s most profitable businesses continue to be cell phone service and selling wired broadband internet access, which together now earns the company over $180 billion annually.

CBS and AT&T Reach Carriage Agreement, CBS Sports Net and Smithsonian Channel Part of Deal

Phillip Dampier August 8, 2019 AT&T, Consumer News, DirecTV, DirecTV Now, Online Video No Comments

CBS and AT&T have agreed to end the blackout of 26 CBS owned and operated TV stations in 17 markets including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas, San Francisco, Boston, Atlanta, Tampa, Seattle, Detroit, Minneapolis, Miami, Denver, Sacramento, Pittsburgh and Baltimore. CBS local stations in these areas will return to AT&T U-verse, DirecTV, and DirecTV Now lineups sometime today.

The renewed retransmission consent contract covers carriage of these stations and CBS-owned CBS Sports Network and Smithsonian Channel for the next several years and could broaden carriage of the two CBS cable networks to additional AT&T platforms in the coming months.

Terms of the agreement were not disclosed, but analysts suggest AT&T is now paying several dollars a month per subscriber for each over the air station. AT&T had earlier claimed CBS was being unreasonable in requesting a substantial hike in rates to continue carrying stations that viewers can get over the air for free.

AT&T is still engaged in weeks-long disputes with several Nexstar and Sinclair-managed local station, resulting in ongoing station blackouts in markets around the country.

DirecTV Now Becomes AT&T TV Now, With AT&T TV Coming Later This Summer

Phillip Dampier July 30, 2019 AT&T, Consumer News, DirecTV, DirecTV Now, Online Video 1 Comment

DirecTV Now customers will soon be introduced to AT&T TV Now as the streaming service rebrands with new apps and prepares for the launch of WarnerMedia’s HBO Max streaming service early next year.

The streaming service, originally branded as part of the DirecTV platform, has suffered major subscriber losses (168,000 in the last three months alone) after reducing the size of its TV packages and raising prices twice in the last year. To date, more than 26% of DirecTV Now’s subscriber base has defected to other streaming services, with no end to those losses in sight. AT&T’s DirecTV satellite and U-verse TV have also turned in stunning reductions in the number of subscribers, losing at least two million customers in the last year, with 778,000 departing during the second quarter of 2019.

AT&T has stopped offering deep promotional discounts to most customers threatening to cancel over rate hikes, and subscribers are making good on their threats to leave. The company is also embroiled in two major retransmission consent disputes that have left customers in several cities facing a blackout of as many as three network affiliated local TV stations. With higher prices for fewer channels, and plenty of alternatives, customers are turning to other providers.

AT&T’s 2015 purchase of DirecTV, in retrospect, appears to have been a major business mistake, according to some Wall Street analysts. Originally intended to help AT&T manage the spiraling costs of video for its U-verse TV service by winning more generous volume discounts from programmers, the DirecTV acquisition came just before the phenomenon of cord-cutting took off, leaving all of AT&T’s video services vulnerable to customer losses. DirecTV Now initially benefited from cord-cutters attracted to its generous package of channels at a low price, but an executive decision to reduce the channel lineup while raising prices drove off what executives characterized as ‘undesirable customers only looking for deals.’

AT&T has also been experimenting with a separate streaming service that will likely eventually replace the satellite-based DirecTV. Beta testers have been providing feedback to AT&T about a new set top streaming box intended to work with this service, now to be called AT&T TV. AT&T is also reducing the number of apps required to access its myriad of video services. AT&T TV and AT&T TV Now customers will download the same app, only the channel lineups will be different. The company is targeting AT&T TV Now on cord-cutters looking for a cheaper and smaller video package, while AT&T TV will include a range of packages likely identical or very similar to DirecTV’s current satellite lineup.

If AT&T TV is successful, AT&T can cut costs incurred installing and maintaining satellite dishes and also eventually decommission DirecTV’s satellite fleet. Rural satellite TV customers without access to broadband may be in a difficult position if that happens, and the country has still not resolved the rural broadband challenge.

Even with these changes, AT&T customers are faced with a large menu of potentially confusing video options. AT&T sells traditional live cable TV services through AT&T TV, AT&T TV Now, DirecTV, and U-verse. It also offers a stripped down WatchTV package offering 35 channels for $15 a month or less. Premium customers still trying to tell the difference between HBO Go and HBO Now will soon also contend with HBO Max. Cinemax has its own similar offerings for cable TV customers and direct to consumer subscribers.

Altice Struggles With Video Programming Costs That Eat 67% of Video Revenue

The reason why many cable companies are no longer willing to cut deals on cable television with customers looking for a better one is that the profit margin enjoyed by cable operators on television service is shrinking fast.

Researcher Cowen found that smaller cable operators are particularly vulnerable to the high costs of cable programming because they do not get the volume discounts larger operators like Comcast, Charter, DirecTV, and Dish are getting.

Researcher Cowen found that programming costs are increasing fast at smaller cable companies. (Image: Cowen/Multichannel News)

Altice USA, which divides about 3.3 million cable TV subscribers between Optimum/Cablevision and Suddenlink, says it paid $682.4 million for cable TV programming during the first quarter of 2019. That amounts to 67% of the company’s total video revenue. If Altice offered complaining customers a 40-50% break on cable television, it would lose money. Cable operators already temporarily give up a significant chunk of video revenue from new customer promotions, which discount offerings for the first year or two of service. Many operators consider any video promotion to be a loss leader these days, because programming costs are exploding, particularly for some local, over-the-air network affiliated stations that are now commanding as much as $3-5 a month per subscriber for each station.

Comcast, the nation’s largest cable operator, unsurprisingly also gets the best programming prices. With volume discounts, Comcast reports its programming costs consume about 60% of revenue. Charter Spectrum and Dish report about 65% of their video revenue is eaten by programming costs. Both are seeing dramatic declines in video subscribers as cord-cutting continues. The more customers a company loses, the less of a discount they will command going forward.

According to Cowen, just three years ago Comcast gave up 53% of video revenue to cover programming costs. With programming rate inflation increasing, many smaller cable companies are considering exiting the cable TV business altogether to focus on more profitable broadband service instead.

14,000 Consumers Cut Cable TV’s Cord Every Day Says New Study

The top 10 service providers in the United States collectively lost over 1.25 million paid television customers in the first three months of 2019, providing further evidence that cord-cutting is accelerating.

Multiscreen Index estimates if that trend continues, an average of 14,000 Americans cancel their paid cable or satellite television service daily.

AT&T suffered the greatest losses, primarily from its satellite television service DirecTV. More than a half-million satellite customers canceled service in the first quarter of the year. AT&T lost another 89,000 streaming customers as news spread that the service was increasing prices and restricting generous promotions to attract new subscribers. DISH Network, DirecTV’s satellite competitor, also lost more than 250,000 customers.

Many cable television providers announced this quarter they would no longer fret about the loss of cable TV customers, and many have dropped retention efforts that included deeply discounted service. As a result, customers are finding it easier than ever to cancel service. Comcast lost 107,000 TV customers, while Charter Spectrum lost 152,000. Spectrum recently increased the price of its Broadcast TV Fee to $11.99 a month and has pulled back on promotions discounting television service.

United States
Service Change
quarter
Subscribers
(millions)
1,280,200 81.90
AT&T TV/DirecTV -544,000 22.36
Comcast -107,000 20.85
Charter Spectrum -152,000 15.95
DISH Network -266,000 9.64
Verizon FiOS -53,000 4.40
Altice USA -10,200 3.30
Sling TV 7,000 2.42
DirecTV Now -89,000 1.44
Frontier -54,000 0.78
Mediacom -12,000 0.76
Source: informitv Multiscreen Index.

“There were losses across the top 10 television services in the United States, with even the DirecTV Now online service losing customers following previous heavy promotion. Between them, they lost over one-and-a-quarter million subscribers in three months. They still command a significant number of customers but the rate of attrition has increased,” said Dr. William Cooper, the editor of the informitv Multiscreen Index.

The total figures for the quarter show roughly 81.90 million Americans are still paying one of the top-10 providers for cable or satellite television service, amounting to less than 70% of television homes — a significant drop. Privately held Cox Communications is excluded because it does not report subscriber numbers or trends.

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