The explanation for the AT&T–Time Warner deal is strangely like the explanation for the disastrous AOL merger
In January 2001, AOL and Time Warner closed a $165 billion merger that was meant to forever marry internet distribution (AOL) with content (Time Warner). It was an immediate disaster; the newly created company’s stock fell more than 75 percent over the following months, and CEO Jeff Bewkes effectively put an end to it by spinning off AOL in 2009.
Now, AT&T has announced plans to buy Time Warner for $86 billion, basically making the same content-distribution bet AOL made for Time Warner 16 years ago. All of the executives involved in the new deal stress that things will be different this time — people actually do watch stuff on the internet (and phones) instead of on TV, and the future will go to whoever’s better at reaching consumers where they are.
Moreover, Comcast bought NBC Universal a few years ago and no one died from it.
The thing is, a lot of that sounds very much like what executives were saying back in 2000 and 2001, during the dot-com bubble. How similar? Well, take a look:
Why content needs distribution:
2000: “The new company will provide an important new broadband distribution platform for America Online’s interactive services and drive subscriber growth through cross-marketing with Time Warner’s pre-eminent brands.” — AOL Time Warner press release
2016: “With great content, you can build truly differentiated video services, whether it’s traditional TV, OTT, or mobile. Our TV, mobile, and broadband distribution and direct customer relationships provide unique insights from which we can offer addressable advertising and better tailor content.” — AT&T press release
Forget the math, just look at those brands:
2000: “Fundamentally, Time Warner has something AOL doesn’t have: great media brands built up over decades. The time isn’t there for internet companies to build that content. Time just won’t hold still.” — AT&T exec George Bell to the New York Times
2016: “They have really just terrific brands, like HBO and Warner Bros., obviously Turner.” — AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson
AT&T's Randall Stephenson calls out "Game of Thrones," CNN and Superman as three of Time Warner's top brands on call with investors
— Todd Spangler (@xpangler) October 24, 2016
Content + distribution:
2000: “The new company will provide an important new broadband distribution platform for America Online’s interactive services and drive subscriber growth through cross-marketing with Time Warner’s pre-eminent brands.” — Time Warner’s press release
2016: “We have a very large customer base in mobility, and the ability to take premium content to our customers in the mobile environment, it’s huge for us, it’s huge for our customers.” — AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson to CNN
We’re going to be able to sell more stuff to folks:
2000: “The battle is shifting. It’s going to be more and more about customer relationships, more than who’s got the pipe or who’s got the content.” — AOL CEO Steve Case, to Fortune
2016: “With great content, you can build truly differentiated video services, whether it’s traditional TV, [over the top] or mobile. Our TV, mobile and broadband distribution and direct customer relationships provide unique insights from which we can offer addressable advertising and better tailor content.” — AT&T press release
Why this deal is different:
2000: “This is the largest merger in U.S. history … and for that reason it’s going to get a lot of attention. However, it’s different in character than any other merger you’ll see. We’re not expecting our market share to grow in any segment and we’re not dominating in any segment.” — AOL CEO Steve Case at a shareholder meeting
2016: “It’s not really selling, it’s joining. This is our biggest customer, our biggest partner, DirecTV; AT&T and all these mobile customers that we now have together. It’ll allow us to move faster, with more innovation, better consumer offerings, more different price points, more effective advertising, and people are going to see that more of the cost of content can be borne by advertising.” — Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes
Disclosure: HBO, which is owned by Time Warner, funds two shows for VICE News.