AT&T’s long-delayed acquisition of Time Warner finally closed some days ago, and within about a week The Wall Street Journal put out a front-page story “It was once ‘game of thrones’ inside Time Warner: AT&T said, enough.”  What had been “powerful fiefs [operating] autonomously”–Warner Bros., HBO, Turner cable networks–were now radically restructured, resulting in high-profile departures.  “Time Warner as it was is now gone,” and the article poses the logical question whether the quondam fiefs can work together while maintaining the “creative juices that made the place worth buying.”  Quite a question.

But not the question we’ll be addressing today: That question is simply “What business is AT&T now in?”, or put somewhat more concretely, “What is AT&T’s business model?”

For context, the analysts covering the AT&T/Time Warner bid almost universally applauded it, at least as an abstract strategic matter (which begs the question about retaining flighty talent like creatives).  Why?  Essentially because all kinds of “content providers” were being pursued and many gobbled up: CBS and Viacom circling each other, Disney and Fox combining, even, for heaven’s sake, Verizon and Yahoo.  That simply reflects the conventional mentality, but it doesn’t begin to examine whether the AT&T/Time Warner combo is a good deal or a bad deal or what business AT&T [is/thinks that it’s in] now:

  • a wireless carrier with a solid and successful basic business that as a nice-to-have benefit decided to throw in some “plus” content icing on the cake?
  • a content provider that happens to deliver it through a wireless infrastructure?
    • and is that content exclusively for our wireless subscribers or
    • can non-AT&T subscribers rent the content a la carte?
  • a  hitherto essentially undifferentiated and therefore long-term-fragile wireless carrier that now can distinguish itself from Verizon and all the rest by offering members-only content?
  • something that they’ll figure out after they’ve scrambled the eggs?

You get the idea.  The point is it’s hard to know what you should be doing as an organization until you have clarity about what business you’re really in–because that will tell you where, among other important things, to invest your treasure and your talent.  If AT&T is still first and foremost a wireless carrier, then we plough resources into 5G.  If a content provider, we go to Hollywood with a checkbook.

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