Inside WarnerMedia as it dismantles the old Time Warner to battle Netflix

Mixed photographs of AT&T CEO John Stankey (L)and john stankey WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar.


In December 2018, John Stankey sat down with HBO CEO Richard Plepler and his management group.

Stankey, the AT&T veteran operating WarnerMedia on the time, was assembly with division heads to listen to concepts on easy methods to fight the menace from Netflix and the secular decline of cable tv. This was the primary time Stankey had heard from Plepler’s full group about their plan.

HBO was the crown jewel of Time Warner, which AT&T had not too long ago acquired for $100 billion with debt. It took two years and a legal battle with the Trump administration to close the deal. It was the largest media acquisition for the reason that final time Time Warner was acquired in 2000, when America On-line paid $162 billion. All that effort and cash was a bit confounding to individuals. Why did a phone firm must personal a premium content material enterprise?

Stankey was the driving drive behind the acquisition, and the clear favourite to take over as the following CEO of AT&T. Its success or failure would hinge on HBO, which already had greater than 30 million subscribers and a sterling popularity in Hollywood and with shoppers.

In line with 5 individuals conversant in the assembly, Plepler laid out a easy path ahead:

First, give HBO extra money to spend on content material.

Second, increase the Cinemax premium TV channel with extra family-friendly unique, library, and licensed kids’s programming.

Third, promote HBO and Cinemax collectively for a pair {dollars} greater than HBO — round $17 monthly.

Fourth, hammer out a take care of Comcast, the most important U.S. cable firm, permitting the broadband distributor to promote HBO Go on to broadband-only clients.

Lastly, and most significantly, do not blow HBO up.

Plepler’s group estimated this plan would assure $7.5 billion in annual income plus future upside relying on the success of the brand new content material.

Stankey heard them out. Then, he ignored their recommendation. Stankey had greater ambitions for streaming video. Lower than three months later, Plepler introduced he was leaving WarnerMedia.

As a substitute, Stankey determined to make use of HBO because the centerpiece for a brand new mission: Construct a real Netflix competitor, dubbed HBO Max. When Stankey took over as AT&T’s CEO this year, he handed that aim to new WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar, who beforehand launched Hulu. HBO Max launched in Might.

Alongside the way in which, Stankey has dismantled the previous Time Warner, spurring dozens of executives from all elements of the corporate to depart. He’s trying to funnel the entire firm’s sources from cable, movie, and HBO into HBO Max, as he told CNBC last year.

Disney, Comcast’s NBCUniversal and ViacomCBS are all going through similar changes now to prepare for a world the place subscription streaming providers overtake cable because the world’s major type of tv consumption. Stankey — the MBA-buzzword, deep-voiced telephone man — was forward of the development.

Nonetheless, his imaginative and prescient has irritated some veteran WarnerMedia executives, who query Stankey’s data of media and really feel ignored The execution of his mission, which Kilar has overseen since Might, has to this point been marred by strategic confusion and tradition clashes, in response to greater than a dozen high-ranking WarnerMedia workers, about half of whom have left the corporate previously six months.

For now, buyers don’t love what they see. AT&T is buying and selling close to a 10-year low. In the meantime Verizon, AT&T’s closest competitor, is buying and selling close to an all-time excessive. Probably the most obtrusive distinction between the 2 firms? Verizon did not spend $170 billion shopping for Time Warner and DirecTV previously 5 years.

That is the story of the transition from Time Warner to WarnerMedia, and the bumps which have occurred alongside the way in which.

Netflix envy

Alhough Stankey was new to media, he suffered the identical illness as each different media govt: Netflix envy.

He thought Plepler was aiming too low. Plepler’s plan to generate $7.5 billion in annual income was 12% greater than HBO’s eventual 2019 income. However it was a far cry from the $20 billion Netflix generated.

Stankey informed Plepler he wished a direct-to-consumer answer that would get to at the least 60 million subscribers in 5 years, in response to individuals conversant in the matter. HBO subscriptions had fallen from about 37.5 million in 2017 to 34.5 million in 2019. Over the identical time, Netflix international subscriptions jumped 50%, from 111 million to 167 million.

If Stankey might persuade buyers that HBO Max would mirror Netflix’s progress trajectory, he may have the ability to seize the next buying and selling a number of for AT&T. That is the holy grail for media firms this decade — convincing Wall Avenue that streaming progress will make up for the decline of legacy companies like cable TV and movie show viewing. It is also a technique supported by AT&T’s most notable investor, activist hedge fund Elliott Administration, which last year bet $3.2 billion that divesting non-core property and specializing in streaming might result in a surge in AT&T shares.

Stankey thought Plepler was connected to a fading distribution mannequin — a wholesale method the place firms like Comcast and Amazon might promote HBO programming together with different linear networks or streaming providers. Stankey seen these firms as opponents greater than companions. The battle can be maintaining viewers within the AT&T ecosystem as an alternative of Apple‘s or Amazon’s or Comcast’s.

This distinction in method confirmed up final month, when WarnerMedia struck a deal to put HBO Max on Amazon Fire TV. As a situation of that settlement, HBO is pulling its content material off Amazon’s Channels interface subsequent yr, individuals conversant in the matter informed CNBC. A number of WarnerMedia executives who labored on the deal blamed Plepler for beforehand giving Amazon an excessive amount of management over HBO programming, making the brand new Fireplace TV settlement a lot tougher to finish.

Richard Plepler, CEO of HBO

Justin Solomon | CNBC

Stankey initially wished to maintain Plepler at HBO, however the relationship began to fray across the finish of 2018, mentioned individuals conversant in the matter. Stankey arrange an L.A. assembly with Casey Bloys, then president of HBO programming, with out inviting or notifying Plepler. Plepler felt disrespected and informed Stankey as a lot. Stankey noticed Plepler as stoking an pointless turf struggle.

Across the identical time, Stankey held a gathering with senior executives on the Time Warner Heart boardroom in New York.

An out of doors marketing consultant, Peter Cairo, who had spent the previous few months interviewing 65 WarnerMedia executives, introduced plenty of issues with Time Warner’s siloed method. Most of the senior leaders in attendance thought the presentation was doctored to assist Stankey’s view that the corporate’s management was standing in the way in which of progress. Cairo, who had a historical past of working with Time Warner’s management group, informed the group HBO was significantly proof against working with different elements of the corporate.

A number of veteran executives, together with Bernadette Aulestia, head of HBO’s international distribution and Donna Speciale, president of WarnerMedia’s advert gross sales, spoke as much as defend Time Warner’s historical past of success whereas questioning the way in which AT&T was dealing with workers morale.

The assembly ended tersely with Stankey slicing off dialogue early, three of the individuals mentioned.

When the presentation ended, Plepler held a personal assembly with Stankey. Quickly after, Plepler revealed to a small group of individuals he was leaving HBO. He made his departure public in Feb. 2019.

Each Plepler and Stankey declined to remark for this story. A WarnerMedia spokesperson added, “As CEO of WarnerMedia and now CEO of AT&T, John Stankey has made it a behavior to go to with proficient workers all through the corporate. That is what good leaders do and is a standard observe at well-run firms.”

HBO Max: Bumpy begin

HBO Max launched in May at a price of $14.99 a month — the identical as HBO — and an bold tagline: “Where HBO meets so much more.” It combines 31 new originals with library programming, together with DC Comics content material, from cable networks like CNN, TNT, Grownup Swim, and the Warner Bros. studio. Stankey additionally licensed widespread TV sequence together with “South Park,” “The West Wing” and “The Bachelor.”

AT&T’s grand plan is to pair HBO Max with its wi-fi service — AT&T clients with premium plans already get HBO Max for free today. Wi-fi service has turn into a commodity in most markets, with AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile all providing related speeds and pricing plans. HBO Max is supposed to assist AT&T stand out from the pack and cut back churn whereas giving the wi-fi firm viewership knowledge for advertising and focused promoting.

Since taking up, Kilar has accelerated Stankey’s burn-it-down technique to spice up HBO Max. As a part of the restructuring, WarnerMedia has carried out a number of rounds of layoffs, together with more than 1,000 employees in November. Kilar has even dismissed workers Stankey introduced in, together with Bob Greenblatt, who took over as chairman of WarnerMedia leisure in March 2019.

He ended Conan O’Brien’s late evening present on TBS and moved it over to HBO Max solely. He is making the blockbuster Warner Bros. film “Wonder Woman 1984” available on HBO Max the identical day it hits theaters on Dec. 25. This week, he announced every Warner Bros. movie slated for launch in 2021, together with “Dune,” “Matrix 4,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Within the Heights,” and “The Sopranos” prequel “The Many Saints of Newark,” will launch on HBO Max on the identical time they’re launched in theaters.

In an interview, Kilar informed CNBC that killing the decades-old theatrical window, the place motion pictures acquired unique runs in theaters earlier than coming to residence video platforms, would make clients completely happy, even when it harm the movie show business.

Gal Gadot stars as Surprise Lady in Warner Bros. “Surprise Lady 1984.”

Warner Bros.

“One of the simplest ways to seek out success in enterprise, and positively with the Web, is to start out with the shopper,” Kilar mentioned. “If we begin our days and finish our days centered on the shopper, we will lead the business.”

Nearly the entire executives who spoke to CNBC — together with a number of nonetheless at WarnerMedia — felt the HBO Max experiment is not going significantly effectively to this point. Only 8.6 million people have signed up to activate the service because it launched in Might. Evaluate this to Disney, which has signed up 73.7 million people for Disney+ in lower than a yr.

“Jason’s perception is — wrongly — if any piece of content material out there wherever aside from HBO Max, it cheapens HBO Max,” mentioned one not too long ago departed govt. “Jason is forgoing billions in income by turning his again on licensing to protect content material for HBO.”

By pricing HBO Max the identical as HBO, Stankey appeared to imagine HBO customers would merely change to HBO Max over time. However the transition has been sluggish, as pay TV and streaming distributors — as soon as HBO’s wanted companions — have little incentive to market HBO Max to the tens of millions of people that already get HBO.

“The danger right here is that they find yourself pouring all of their Warner Bros. Studios content material into HBO Max just for it to proceed to be a premium service that serves solely the highest third of households,” mentioned MoffettNathanson analyst Craig Moffett. “There’s an actual threat that 1+1+1=1 right here, and that each one that will probably be left of Warner Media when they’re completed is an HBO division that is kind of the identical measurement because it was after they began.”

One downside is HBO Max has no tent-pole unique sequence to jumpstart subscribers, like Disney+ has with “The Mandalorian.” That is partly as a result of, after the delay from the battle with the U.S. authorities, Stankey wished to get the service out quick, in response to individuals conversant in the matter. The coronavirus pandemic lockdowns in 2020 additionally delayed the creation and filming of recent materials.

The rushed launch has additionally affected distribution. WarnerMedia held out on a streaming distribution take care of Amazon for months to get friendlier phrases and nonetheless hasn’t reached a take care of Roku. Kilar’s resolution to launch the 2021 Warner Bros. slate of films on HBO Max concurrently with theater distribution might put extra strain on Roku to achieve a deal. (Spokespeople at WarnerMedia and Roku declined to remark.)

Then there’s the confusing branding around HBO Max, which initially joined a plethora of equally named providers, together with HBO, HBO Go, and HBO Now. Though WarnerMedia finally got around to retiring HBO Go and altering HBO Now to easily ‘HBO’ in June, a number of workers in command of advertising and branding acknowledged the adjustments ought to have come a lot sooner, earlier than HBO Max ever launched.

Kilar can also roll out separate streaming merchandise, akin to a CNN-related product and a free leisure service that includes content material from TNT and TBS, The Data reported.

There’s even been speak internally of adjusting the title of HBO Max — both internationally solely or globally — as soon as it rolls out worldwide in 2021, in response to three individuals conversant in the matter. Executives have batted round a number of names with “Warner” because the title model, quite than “HBO” — which makes much more sense if the service builds model fairness round having movies the day they hit theaters. A WarnerMedia spokesperson mentioned {that a} title change is not being actively thought of presently.

Passing on divestments

Elliott, which sold $150 million in AT&T shares at a loss final month, has pushed Stankey to divest property. Nonetheless, CNBC has realized AT&T not too long ago handed on a pair offers that would have introduced in billions of {dollars} for the debt-laden firm.

Simply as Kilar was taking up WarnerMedia in Might, DraftKings floated the thought of buying Bleacher Report from AT&T. The Bleacher Report govt group was privately hoping Stankey and the board would approve a deal, as a result of it was clear AT&T’s focus can be on HBO Max, in response to individuals conversant in the matter. However AT&T by no means critically thought of the sale, these individuals say. A DraftKings spokesman declined to remark. Since then, plenty of excessive rating Bleacher Report executives have left WarnerMedia, together with CEO Howard Mittman.

Kilar additionally determined to maintain Warner Brothers Interactive Leisure, the corporate’s video gaming unit, after AT&T fielded bidders earlier this year.

“Any chart about gaming utilization is up and to the precise,” mentioned Kilar. “It is probably the most spectacular developments in U.S. client conduct within the final 20 years. Once we check out the following 5, 10 or 15 years with WarnerMedia, I am very excited with the function gaming will play in our future.”

DirecTV dread

Within the years after buying DirecTV, Stankey eradicated many of the firm’s prime leaders, modified the satellite tv for pc TV technique to digital-first, and ended advertising campaigns touting the benefits of legacy know-how.

The outcomes haven’t been good.

AT&T ended the third quarter with about 17 million legacy TV subscribers (each DirecTV and U-Verse), down greater than 16% from a yr earlier. Whereas all pay-TV distributors have misplaced clients in recent times, AT&T has misplaced probably the most — about eight million video subscribers since early 2017. For comparability, Comcast has misplaced about three million residential video clients over the identical interval, dropping from 22.5 million to 19.2 million.

The digital product has been a non-starter. Final quarter, the corporate reported an anemic 683,000 clients for AT&T Now — the brand new title for DirecTV Now. That is a drop of 40% from final yr.

AT&T is presently in late-stage sale talks with non-public fairness companies to promote a minority stake within the firm’s pay-TV distribution enterprise for a valuation that could be less than $15 billion, individuals conversant in the matter informed CNBC.

A few of this decline could also be a strategic selection. Stankey has purposefully steered AT&T’s enterprise away from DirecTV, realizing that promoting a bundle of linear channels — even digitally — is not the way forward for tv. It is doable DirecTV will function template of what to not do, although Stankey has refused to name the DirecTV deal a mistake.

‘Tradition eats technique for breakfast’

This run of success has satisfied lots of the world’s hottest and glorified creators to work at HBO.

“Tradition eats technique for breakfast,” Plepler would regularly say to co-workers, quoting legendary management consultant Peter Drucker, in response to individuals conversant in the matter.

Some workers worry Stankey and Kilar do not recognize how lengthy it took to construct these relationships. A number of famous that Kilar and his deputy Andy Forssell have know-how backgrounds that do not all the time combine with the established inventive tradition.

Kilar mentioned any workers harboring that concern should not be frightened.

“I do not outline tradition,” Kilar mentioned. “You are speaking a few tradition that finally goes again 97 years.” (Warner Bros. was based in 1923.) “That is not going to vary as a result of a couple of people are not current. Tradition is the selections we make when nobody else is wanting. When you assume that is going away, you are not giving sufficient credit score to tradition.”

Kilar has retained some key HBO executives from the previous twenty years, together with Bloys, who’s now in command of HBO Max content material. Meredith Gertler, a 16-year HBO veteran, is govt vp of content material technique. Amy Gravitt, who joined HBO in 2004, heads up comedy programming. Nina Rosenstein stays an govt vp of programming after greater than twenty years with the corporate.

However former executives level to Stankey’s push so as to add promoting to HBO Max, slated for the second quarter of 2021, as probably ruinous, in response to individuals conversant in the plans. Would manufacturers have been snug associating with “Recreation of Thrones” beheadings or rape scenes in “The Sopranos”? HBO by no means wished to seek out out and threat having to compromise its content material to maintain advertisers completely happy.

“If HBO stood for something, it was making a product for the shopper, not the advertiser,” mentioned one former HBO govt. “It isn’t as if John is disagreeable. He would not throw stuff. He simply is aware of a lot much less about tv than he thinks and will not be debated.”

Each current and previous workers are optimistic that Bloys and his group can hold churning out unique programming hits for HBO Max. Bloys is shifting past the basic HBO tropes and attempting to show sequence that revolve round DC Comics characters or reboots like “Gossip Lady” into hits.

Nonetheless, lots of these individuals predict AT&T will finally dump WarnerMedia, both in items or collectively, as a result of legacy media property will proceed to weigh on AT&T’s inventory quite than assist it. A number of mentioned AT&T’s board will finally balk at giving Kilar the cash he must compete with Netflix, Amazon and Disney.

‘Why put the 2 firms collectively?’

“Why put the 2 firms collectively?” Stephenson said. “The world of distribution and content material is converging, and we have to transfer quick, and if we need to do one thing really distinctive, start to curate content material in a different way, start to format content material totally different for these cell environments — that is all about mobility. Suppose DirecTV Now, the brand new product we’re bringing to market. What are you able to do with Time Warner content material actually quick and really uniquely for our clients? Can you start to combine social into that content material? Are you able to give the aptitude to…I am watching content material, I need to clip it, I need to ship it through social media to my mates. Can we iterate on that rapidly, and might we give a novel expertise to our clients?”

No matter Stephenson was speaking about in that reply, it hasn’t occurred. There is a sense — even amongst prime executives nonetheless on the firm — that AT&T’s WarnerMedia transformation is about making lemonade from property in peril of changing into lemons.

However nobody pressured AT&T to purchase Time Warner within the first place. The identical may be mentioned for DirecTV. Stephenson and Stankey made these choices.

It would take at the least a yr or two extra to guage HBO Max as successful or failure. In that point, WarnerMedia might develop a tradition and a product that breed loyal workers and make the gripes of the old-timers appear petty and irrelevant.

To borrow a line from “The Sopranos,” “‘Keep in mind when’ is the bottom type of dialog.”

Then once more, it is regarding to listen to the identical anxieties from so many WarnerMedia executives. To make use of a distinct “Sopranos” line, “One factor you may by no means say is that you have not been informed.”


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