AT&T TV: An MVPD in geek’s clothing

This week, AT&T begins the national rollout with its new AT&T TV service after a 13 market pilot test. AT&T gave me a demo in their downtown Boston store and a trial subscription to test; plus, I listened to the conference call with G. W. Shaw, VP of product marketing for AT&T TV, as he briefed the press on key features of the service.

Quick take: this is a cord-swapping package that puts a traditional linear TV bundle into an OTT set-top box.

Cord-swapping because at its heart is a traditional linear TV bundle, but the set-top box is not the kludgy device from a cable or satellite provider, but an open platform like a Roku or Amazon Fire allowing the viewer to download their preferred streaming apps.

AT&T TV’s goal is to corral into a single package the fragmented experience consumers have today with their linear TV bundle, Netflix, Hulu, Prime Video, et al., subscriptions. It’s an interesting hybrid approach, but AT&T overemphasizes the linear TV part of the offering.

There’s some consumer appeal to this positioning as a single source for all video: in conversations with our Consumer Voices community, my colleague Kris Arcand has heard consumer disillusionment with the fact that streaming doesn’t really save them money (as I noted in this 2017 post) and frustration with the growing complexity of finding what you want to watch across multiple streaming apps, the linear TV schedule and your DVR.

AT&T TV addresses this frustration with its set-top box by integrating Google Assistant to enable voice to search for content across all these content sources. And, like other streaming set-top boxes or Comcast’s X-1, the installation is plug-and-play, so no need for The Cable Guy or a satellite dish installer.

But an average TV viewer should be forgiven for not seeing what’s new here: The linear TV bundles look — and are priced — like any cable or satellite MVPD or virtual MVPD such as Sling TV. The marketing tactics also look similar to a traditional MVPD: an attractive $39.95 per month introductory price, but you must sign a two-year contract and the second year price is not disclosed. When asked about this on the conference call, Mr. Shaw stated that the second-year price reverts to the standard pricing which can be as high as $93 per month for the Ultimate bundle. This is cord swapping, not cord-cutting, so there is no pricing advantage versus a traditional multichannel video programming distributor (MVPD).

How will this change the TV landscape? It’s hard to see that it will. Despite the talk that people hate their cable company and are eager to cut the cord, the uptake of virtual MVPD’s is still in the single-digit millions. True cord-cutters are a growing segment, but they won’t be lured back to the bundle. So AT&T TV’s key differentiator is having all your video options in a single box with voice search. But is this a strong enough offering to overcome the significant inertia consumers have shown over the years in sticking with the current TV provider in the face of new alternatives?

AT&T’s best bet is to view this not as an MVPD-killer but as a Roku competitor. If like Roku, they can succeed in building a subscriber base of 20 million to 30 million households, they can leverage their Xandr ad platform into a significant TV advertising revenue generator. But their current strategy of continuing to offer all their other TV services (U-verse, DirecTV, and AT&T TV Now) and not trying to migrate those customers to AT&T TV creates consumer confusion and misses this opportunity.

This post was written by Principal Analyst Jim Nail, and it originally appeared here.

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