On Oct. 25, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, Time Warner chief Jeff Bewkes and about 15 top Warner Bros. managers gathered in a conference room on the studio lot in Burbank. It had been three days since AT&T revealed it would pay about $85 billion to acquire Warners‘ parent company, and the Hollywood people had reason to be nervous. AT&T’s Dallas-based boss has no direct experience running a content company and, for that matter, is a Midwestern MBA, a registered Republican and president of the squeaky-clean Boy Scouts of America.
But, says a person who was there, Stephenson put the room at ease, noting clearly he was no fan of Donald Trump. “It was a cultural signal,” an insider tells The Hollywood Reporter, adding: “He reassured the team that the value of our brands depends on the expertise of our team and that they were committed to retaining our executive and creative talent.”
Stephenson, 56, repeated the meet-and-greet with HBO and Turner teams in New York. As he’s introducing himself to Hollywood, the industry in turn is trying to figure him out — for good reason. If regulators bless the AT&T-Time Warner merger sometime next year, Stephenson arguably would become the most powerful media mogul on the planet, lording over a company set to be worth north of $300 billion — more than twice the value of 21st Century Fox, Sony, Viacom and CBS combined.
While he runs a phone company, Stephenson long has known the future of telecommunications is video, says Peter Chernin, the former News Corp. COO whose Chernin Group is partnered with AT&T on Otter Media, a $500 million investment firm. “Hollywood should look at him with overwhelming excitement,” says Chernin, declining comment on whether he would join the merged company. “If being a media mogul means you understand great content, can effectively manage creative people, are bold and innovative and have an instinct for consumer desires, he’s already proved this in spades.”
Stephenson declined to be interviewed for this story, and he maintains an air of mystery by rarely speaking about himself. His Wikipedia page contains a scant 477 words, miniscule by mogul standards (Disney CEO Bob Iger’s is four times larger, for example). Stephenson may have hinted at his taste in entertainment when he wrote a letter to employees describing Time Warner’s role in pop culture — he left out Batman but included a patriotic Clint Eastwood film.
“Blockbuster shows like Game of Thrones and iconic films like Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and American Sniper, are going to be joined with AT&T’s unmatched customer relationships and distribution scale in TV, mobile and broadband,” he wrote.
Interviews with those with whom he has worked reveal he indeed is a GOP stalwart but with liberal tendencies on social issues. As a board member of the Boy Scouts, he was instrumental in ending its ban on openly gay scouts (he was elected national president in May). Time Warner, whose employees have donated 400 times more money to Democrat Hillary Clinton than to Trump during this presidential cycle, is circulating a YouTube video of Stephenson praising the Black Lives Matter movement. “When a person struggling with what’s been broadcast in our airwaves says, ‘Black lives matter,’ we should not say, ‘All lives matter,’ ” Stephenson told an AT&T employee group in September.
In what’s become known among TW employees as Stephenson’s Black Lives Matter speech, he also said: “Tolerance is for cowards,” a sentiment that jolted the audience a bit. “Being tolerant requires nothing from you but to be quiet and not make waves, holding tightly to your views and judgments without being challenged. Do not tolerate each other. Work hard, move into uncharted territory and understand each other.”
He’ll need help from both Republicans and Democrats to get his deal approved. Already, Trump has vowed to kill it, and Clinton’s vp choice, Tim Kaine, has expressed reservations. Barclays says Wall Street is handicapping approval at just 31 percent, given Time Warner shares are trading for about $87 even though AT&T has agreed to pay about $107.50 apiece for them. Even without Time Warner, AT&T is a $225 billion behemoth that boasts 133 million mobile subscribers, 16 million broadband customers and, via last year’s purchase of DirecTV, 25 million pay TV subscribers.
At least for now, Stephenson seems to be saying the right things publicly and privately. At an Oct. 25 conference, he addressed journalism watchdogs worried that Time Warner’s CNN would be tainted by AT&T ownership: “When you own a news company, independence is sacrosanct.” In the Warner Bros. meeting, he maintained the importance of a free-flowing creative culture. And HBO CEO Richard Plepler told the New York Times he was pleased with Stephenson’s first impression: “Randall made very clear to everybody that what they are buying they look at with enormous respect and admiration, and the last thing they have any interest in doing is messing with a winning game.”
Stephenson is more subdued than the average mogul, more akin to Iger and Bewkes than Sumner Redstone and Rupert Murdoch, who built empires with “bravado and showbiz,” says analyst Steven Birenberg of Northlake Capital. “One thing he does have in common with some media moguls is that he is an empire-builder. Heck, he is old school.”
“A charming, Southern gentleman,” says Dave Lieber, a consumer-advocate columnist for the Dallas Morning News who has been lambasting AT&T’s customer service for a dozen years. After one recent column, Stephenson invited Lieber to lunch.
“We went to his office and I told him I wasn’t able to let him buy me lunch. He says, ‘Then you can watch me eat.’ I thought that was CEO talk for ‘f— you,’ so I slapped a five-dollar bill down and took my chicken sandwich,” Lieber tells THR. “I gave him my red binder, which contained 119 letters over the past 100 days, and I told him: ‘I’ve been getting these complaints every day for 12 years, and I want you to make it stop. This is the worst large company in America!'”
Lieber says Stephenson took the binder and said he’d get back to Lieber, though he has yet to do so. “He’s a smooth operator,” says Lieber. “When I was in his office, there was no one with him. He’s so confident in his ability to win people over that he figured he could handle me one-on-one. That says something, because normally a CEO who invites a crazed columnist into his office would have a PR person as a witness, or backup, but there was nobody in there.”
Born in Oklahoma City, Stephenson graduated from the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond, Okla., and earned an MBA from the University of Oklahoma. Married with two kids, he joined Southwestern Bell Telephone in 1982 and rose through the ranks until SBC and AT&T merged in 2005. He was promoted to CEO in 2007. On Oct. 12, Chief Executive magazine named Stephenson CEO of the year, citing annual average return to shareholders of 10 percent. In those nine years, he grew revenue from $119 billion to $147 billion. During his acceptance speech, he again delved into politics.
“If you listen to the political rhetoric going on, you would think that American business is stealing the American Dream,” he said. “I would suggest to you that the American Dream would not even be possible were it not for highly competitive, highly productive American businesses.”
The only hint of scandal has come, ironically, by way of CNN and its now defunct iReport citizen journalism experiment, which falsely reported in 2009 that Stephenson died of a cocaine overdose while partying with male dancers. The story was likely part of a bizarre prank in response to AT&T briefly blocking broadband access to 4chan, a controversial internet site that relies heavily on anonymous postings. AT&T restored 4chan and said it had blocked it only temporarily to stem a denial-of-service attack that came from one if its internet addresses.
As for Bewkes, he has been telling anyone who will listen that a merged AT&T-Time Warner is what the media-entertainment industry needs to help stop ad dollars bleeding from television to the likes of Google and Facebook. “There’s one thing they love,” he said of those two social-media companies while sharing the stage with Stephenson at the Oct. 25 conference, “and that’s innovation and competition, and we are here to help.”
“Media companies are becoming telecoms and telecoms are becoming media,” says Tomer Sade, founder of Wise Data Media, a digital marketing firm. “Stephenson realizing this trend and acting upon it is very smart.”
The merger, Sade predicted, will make Stephenson “a leading media mogul.”
A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.