AT&T looks to sell DirecTV as investors question its huge bet on content

October 7, 2020, 9:03 PM UTC

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AT&T is reportedly putting its DirecTV business up for auction just five years after buying it. The move raises momentous questions: Does this signal the unwinding of AT&T’s hugely ambitious program to become a media titan, arguably the largest transformation underway at any Fortune 500 company? What other assets might go on the block? What’s ahead for one of America’s most widely held stocks?

DirecTV’s fate (AT&T declined to comment on it) is important because the company was a key element in former CEO Randall Stephenson’s plan for “controlling [AT&T’s] own destiny,” as he told Fortune last year. Several years ago he concluded that cell phones would become video-delivery vehicles, and in that environment AT&T needed “to own a big portfolio of premium content.” Buying DirecTV for $67 billion in 2015 brought AT&T the rights to a wide range of programming, but not enough of it. So in 2016 AT&T made a massive deal to buy Time Warner—HBO, Warner Bros., the Turner networks (TBS, TNT, CNN, others)—for $109 billion. The deal cleared antitrust approval early last year. AT&T became the most indebted nonfinancial company in America.

Investors were never convinced it was a wise idea. AT&T stock has never been as high as it was shortly before the Time Warner deal was announced. The S&P 500 is up 56% since then; AT&T is down 34%.

The centerpiece of AT&T’s strategy is a streaming service that was meant to be introduced in the fourth quarter of last year, but it missed that deadline. Disney+ and Apple TV went live months ahead of AT&T’s service, HBO Max, which arrived last May. Against those competitors as well as Netflix and Hulu, HBO Max attracted 4.1 million subscribers in its first month. For comparison, Disney+ signed up 10 million subscribers on its first day.

AT&T’s sagging share price caught the attention of an activist investor, Elliott Management. The firm bought $3.2 billion of stock and in September of last year sent the company a searing 23-page letter ripping the grand strategy and questioning Stephenson’s leadership. It said specifically that AT&T should consider divesting DirecTV.

Elliott has almost never commented on AT&T—it did not respond to a request for comment for this article—but certain events seem telling. Seven weeks after that scorching letter, and after intense negotiations with Elliott, AT&T announced a new plan in which it would sell unspecified assets and add two new directors to the board. As part of that plan, Stephenson said, “I will be here through 2020 to ensure that we hit the objectives we’ve laid out today.” He also said DirecTV “will be an important piece of our strategy over the next three years.”

The first statement proved untrue. Stephenson stepped down ahead of schedule on July 1, handing the job to a company veteran, John Stankey. With the second statement now also looking nugatory, you have to wonder if Elliott is the force behind these moves, as it appears to be, and if so, what changes might be next on its agenda.

For a strong clue, parse that 23-page letter. “AT&T has yet to articulate a clear strategic rationale for why AT&T needs to own Time Warner,” it says. Eleven pages later it says this: “Any assets that do not have a clear, strategic rationale for being part of AT&T should be considered for divestment.”

That italicized “any” seems significant.

It’s hard to believe that AT&T would unload Time Warner (renamed WarnerMedia), or even a large part of it, with the grand strategy just getting fully underway. But investors have lost confidence. The stock plunged with the rest of the market in March, then missed the boom that followed; it’s still where it was when the world was ending in mid-March. If investors don’t get on board soon, Elliott will have a powerful argument that it’s time for drastic measures.

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