Responding to a question about how some shareholders feel that owning a news channel can be divisive, he told the virtual event: “We are in a time and society now where any point that is expressed is probably open for debate and consideration from individuals, and I am certainly aware that there are points of view expressed on CNN, and what our journalists express, not all individuals necessarily agree with.”
He highlighted that the news media, “not only CNN, but literally any news outlet or media outlet that is out there, is very important to our society,” adding that AT&T believes in the free speech and press protections under the First Amendment and people’s freedom of beliefs. “We actually think those things are incredibly important to a healthy democracy. And when we acquired Time Warner, we made a commitment that CNN would have editorial independence from any other aspect of AT&T’s business and in turn they were expected to stand up to rigorous journalistic standards for accurate, truthful reporting, and we continue to ensure that that’s the case.”
Concluded Stankey: “CNN is actually, at a time when all media is stressed, the most respected brand in news today, and we are proud of that.” And in the past five years, the network has won more Emmys than in the previous 35 years combined, he noted. “They play an important role, as does the rest of the news media, ensuring our democracy continues to function.”
Stankey was also asked about how AT&T approaches making any political comments, saying the current environment is “as polarized” as he has ever seen. “Nearly every issue that comes up seems to be viewed through a divisive, partisan point of view.” He said the executive team “very carefully” deliberates before speaking out and he feels AT&T functions best “when we find the center on issues.”
Stankey on Friday also said HBO Max has performed “remarkably well” since its launch last year, lauding HBO for adding more subscribers “in the last seven months of 2020 than in the previous 10 years combined.”
Stankey also responded to a shareholder asking if HBO Max was looking to compete and prevail against Netflix. He argued Netflix had a “tremendous business and a tremendous business model,” but added WarnerMedia wasn’t looking to mimic the streaming giant.
“We’re not trying to do a me-too. We’re trying to find the needs of customers and meet those unique needs and make sure that, within the portfolio of entertainment products that a customer household is likely to purchase moving forward, HBO Max is one of those products,” Stankey argued.
He also pointed to an ad-supported version of HBO Max set to launch as a market differentiator with Netflix.
WarnerMedia’s HBO and its HBO Max streaming service ended March with 44.2 million U.S. and 63.9 million worldwide subscribers, the company had disclosed in its first-quarter earnings report. That was up from 41.5 million total HBO Max and HBO domestic subscribers as of the end of 2020.
AT&T did not break out the specific number of subscribers for its HBO Max streaming platform as it no longer reports “activations,” instead focusing on the combined figures.
During an investor event in March, AT&T said it now expects to reach 120 million to 150 million HBO Max and HBO subscribers worldwide by the end of 2025, well above its October 2019 forecast of 75 million to 90 million. It expects to end 2021 with 67 million to 70 million subscribers worldwide.
Stankey also reiterated a push by AT&T to cut costs across the telecom conglomerate. “It’s about improving the operating infrastructure of this company, and it’s about making sure that our employees are focused on a select number of products that are built and engineered properly so that customers really see them as being great,” he said.