A series of major mergers was supposed to transform AT&T from a stodgy old phone company into a slick online video and advertising juggernaut. Instead, customers are headed for the exits as AT&T hikes prices in a bid to pay down the company’s soaring merger debt.
AT&T’s $67 billion acquisition of satellite television provider DirecTV in 2015 not only eliminated a competitor, the combined weight of the two companies gave AT&T greater leverage in programming negotiations. Last year’s $86 billion acquisition of Time Warner gave AT&T ownership of essential, must have programming like HBO, providing an additional competitive advantage.
AT&T executives proclaimed the mergers would bring “a fresh approach to how the media and entertainment industry works for consumers, content creators, distributors and advertisers.” But some Wall Street analysts at the time expressed concern that the debt incurred from the company’s mergers would make that goal untenable.
It’s now looking like those Wall Street analysts were right to worry.
AT&T’s fourth quarter earnings, released on Wednesday, weren’t pretty. The company lost a whopping 403,000 DirecTV satellite subscribers in a single quarter. And while AT&T still serves 19.22 million satellite TV customers, more than 1.4 million DirecTV customers have fled the satellite TV provider in just the last two years.
Customers making the switch from cable or satellite TV to digital options like Netflix—often called cord cutting—has hit numerous TV providers hard as customers flee to modern streaming alternatives. Studies have shown these defections are largely driven by skyrocketing pay TV rates, though the industry’s historically-awful customer service also plays a role.
In 2016 AT&T launched its own streaming video service: DirecTV Now, at a less expensive price point than the company’s traditional cable TV offerings. But things aren’t going quite as AT&T planned there, either. According to AT&T’s earnings breakdown, AT&T lost 267,000 DirecTV Now subscribers last quarter, or a whopping 14 percent of its streaming subscriber total.
Sector analysts believe these defections were largely thanks to a $5 price hike imposed over the summer and the elimination of promotional discounts. AT&T has made it clear that DirecTV Now subscribers should expect more hikes and fewer promotions moving forward.
“As those customers come due, we’ll get closer to market pricing,” AT&T executive John Donovan said last November. “We’ll be respectful of our customers, but that will move up.”
Between the DirecTV Deal and the Time Warner acquisition, AT&T saddled itself with a whopping $160 billion in debt in just three years.
"Our top priority in 2019 is driving down the debt from our Time Warner acquisition," AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson told reporters on this week’s call.
But longtime Wall Street analyst Craig Moffett of MoffettNathanson Research told Motherboard he doesn’t believe AT&T’s current trajectory is financially sustainable, given the price hikes are likely to just drive further customer defections, creating a perfect circle of dysfunction.
“They’re doing exactly what they promised,” Moffett told me in an email exchange. “They said they would prioritize free cash flow and paying down debt, and now the market is getting an up close and personal look at just what that looks like. Raising prices and losing subscribers even faster.”
AT&T’s made great headway in recent years killing consumer protections like net neutrality and eroding FCC oversight, paving the way for anti-competitive revenue generation efforts like exempting AT&T’s own streaming content from usage caps while penalizing Netflix users.
But Moffett doubts if even this will be enough to right the AT&T ship. He believes that while AT&T might make its 2019 financial targets, it could be “at the cost of an even uglier 2020.”
“Interestingly, most of the most aggressive strategies, like trying to keep key content from Time Warner exclusive for the benefit of either DirecTV or their wireless business, would actually hurt near term results,” Moffett said.
When contacted by Motherboard for comment, AT&T would only say that the company has been clear about its plan to eliminate promotions and pay down debt, noting the company has paid down $9 billion in debt since the Time Warner deal closed. It was also quick to insist its current streaming pricing is well in line with comparable services like Hulu + Live TV and YouTube TV.
But as Motherboard has exclusively reported, some of this debt is being eliminated courtesy of looming layoffs, despite AT&T receiving tens of billions in tax cuts and regulatory favors from the Trump administration. Many AT&T customers are particularly annoyed by the company’s assault on net neutrality, a move also likely to drive up consumer costs.
Hammering already frustrated customers with yet more price hikes—to pay for mergers nobody wanted—isn’t likely to improve AT&T’s image anytime soon.