Q. I’ve been reading that DIRECTV might merge with Dish. Is that possible, in your opinion? I would be happy to see it as a DIRECTV customer for 10 years. AT&T is really, really bad. — Adrienne, Norfolk, Virginia.
Adrienne, AT&T bought DIRECTV for $67 billion in 2015, but the deal has been a disaster for the telco.
Since the purchase, DIRECTV has lost roughly two million customers. The spread of cord-cutting is certainly a cause, but subscriber dissatisfaction over DIRECTV’s annual price hikes, and AT&T’s uncertain stewardship of the satcaster, are factors as well. (Yes, Adrienne, you are not the only one who has complained about DIRECTV’s customer service since AT&T assumed control.)
The idea of AT&T jettisoning DIRECTV has gained momentum in the last few weeks after a major AT&T investor publicly called for a company shake-up, possibly including the sale of the satellite TV service.
AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson yesterday dismissed talk of a DIRECTV sale during a presentation before a Goldman Sachs conference. He said the satcaster is integral to the company’s vision of delivering programming and telecommunications services in a variety of ways.
“We believe people are going to spend more and more of their day watching premium content and we expect people will also demand more bandwidth,” Stephenson told the industry confab.
But, of course, you would expect Stephenson to say that now. If AT&T was seriously considering selling DIRECTV, he would want to keep that secret to avoid looking like the company was panicking. However, the continued subscriber losses, and the outside calls for company change, will force AT&T to take some action.
So I think AT&T will explore a sale, if for no other reason to appease that major investor (the Elliott Management hedge fund). And if it considers a sale, the obvious partner would be Dish.
Dish is the nation’s second largest satellite TV service with slightly less than 10 million subscribers. (DIRECTV still has more than 18 million.) While Dish is also losing customers to cord-cutting, and the expansion of streaming options, the acquisition of DIRECTV would give it a total of 27 million satellite TV subscribers. That would make Dish the nation’s largest pay TV company. (And the number would reach 30 million when you add in Sling TV, Dish’s live streaming service, which has 2.47 million subscribers.)
With roughly 30 million subscribers, and no competition in the satellite TV category, Dish could stay profitable for years by generating more advertising, and pressuring programmers to offer lower carriage fees. (Think of it. Few programmers would want their channels suddenly removed from a pay TV service that reaches more than 30 million homes.)
Dish Chairman Charlie Ergen has said he’s open to a DIRECTV merger, but questions whether the federal government would approve it. He notes that the feds quashed a Dish-DIRECTV merger proposal 17 years ago on the grounds that it would be anti-competitive.
But the video business is dramatically different now thanks to the streaming revolution which gives the consumer more options and price points. The feds would be more likely to say yes.
Still, it’s never easy to bring two companies together, particularly when you’re dealing with Ergen who can be a contentious negotiator. So we’ll see. At this point, I would give the DIRECTV-Dish merger no better than a 50 percent of likelihood.
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— Phillip Swann