After years of acquisitions, AT&T is on a sales mode. The telecom’s on-again, off-again love affair with satellite pay-TV distribution appears to be off again. The company has reportedly hired a major investment banker to help unload DirecTV, which it acquired in 2015 for $48.5 billion just as online TV and subscription streaming video-on-demand was flourishing.
AT&T is also looking to offload anime-based streaming service/publisher Crunchyroll and Xandr, the online advertising unit launched just two years (following the $1.8 billion acquisition of AppNexus), but has struggled to gain traction due to a variety of issues in the rapidly changing digital ecosystem.
With nearly $180 billion in debt following the $85 billion purchase of Time Warner (now WarnerMedia), AT&T has been looking to cut non-core assets. The debt is now down to $152 billion, and despite repeated denials from senior executives over the years, DirecTV appears to be on sales block.
The Wall Street Journal reports AT&T is working with Goldman Sachs to find a buyer willing to pay around $20 billion for 50% stake in the El Segundo, Calif.-based pay-TV operator. The sale is challenged by ongoing secular changes in home entertainment underscored by the loss of 7 million combined DirecTV/AT&T U-verse video subs in the past year.
As subscription streaming video-on-demand services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Hulu proliferate, AT&T has attempted to straddle traditional linear TV distribution with over-the-top video. The company has now moved much of its content distribution future into HBO Max, the $15 monthly SVOD platform, which plans to offer an ad-supported tier in 2021.
“To the extent that we’re able to get those [pay-TV] customers engaged with us on those [streaming] platforms, then we’re in a good place, and we’re OK with that,” CEO John Stankey told CNBC in July. “And if that takes us down a path that says satellite delivery is less important, so be it.”
A possible merger with rival Dish Network is a favorite proposition for Dish founder/CEO Charlie Ergen, but some observers say the idea would trigger anti-trust issues from the government.
Xandr, which generated about $2 billion in revenue in 2019, had hoped to capitalize on the burgeoning digital ad market focusing on non-video displays. That strategy has apparently backfired as online video ads dominate and online TV publishers were reluctant to sell their ad inventory through Xandr due to AT&T’s competing HBO Max platform, The Journal reported, citing sources familiar with the situation.
Crunchyroll, which AT&T acquired in its purchase of Otter Media, is on the block for a reported $1.5 billion with interested suitors including Sony Corp.