Thursday, December 2News That Matters

AT&T, in Abrupt Turn, Will Shed Media Business in Deal With Discovery

The merger is a significant about-face for AT&T, a telecommunications giant that got into the media business with its Time Warner foray. Industry experts questioned AT&T’s deal, and now the spinoff indicates a failed acquisition strategy.

John Stankey, the chief executive of AT&T, has looked at its media business as a way to keep its phone customers from switching to other companies. AT&T Wireless subscribers get discounts and free access to HBO Max. A deal with Discovery could include stipulations that customers would maintain those benefits.

Before he took over as chief executive last year, Mr. Stankey was the company’s chief mergers strategist. But his track record has been spotty. In addition to planning AT&T’s purchase of Time Warner, he was behind the company’s $48 billion acquisition of the satellite operator DirecTV in 2015. The service has been bleeding customers for years; in February, AT&T sold part of the business to the private equity firm TPG for about $16 billion, a third of what it originally paid.

For Discovery, the WarnerMedia deal could finally give Mr. Zaslav the size and scale he has long sought. A swashbuckling executive who can recall ratings figures off the top of his head, Mr. Zaslav represents the last of the old guard in media, a hobnobbing mogul known for hosting lavish get-togethers at his house in the Hamptons.

The new company would create a new kind of media behemoth, one that is still living off the fat profits of old-school cable, while spending those profits (and more) on streaming.

Even with increased competition, HBO remains a standout in television, and last year, once again, captured more Emmys than any other network, studio or platform, including Netflix. It has several hit shows, including “Succession,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Barry” and “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver.” It also has a huge library that includes “The Sopranos,” “Game of Thrones” and “Sex and the City.”

The Warner Bros. TV studio likewise has produced successful shows for both its parent company, WarnerMedia, and outside studios with series like “Ted Lasso” (Apple TV+), “Riverdale” (CW), “The Flight Attendant” (HBO Max) and “The Bachelor” (ABC). The Warner Bros. movie studio recently released movies like “Godzilla vs. Kong,” “Mortal Kombat” and has big coming releases like “Dune” and “The Matrix 4.”

Brooks Barnes and Lauren Hirsch contributed reporting.