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这家电信大佬已转型为媒体巨无霸

葛继甫(Geoff Colvin) 2019年06月10日

首席执行官兰德尔·斯蒂芬森将同时对抗Netflix和康卡斯特。这并不容易。

今年年初,有人怀疑美国电话电报公司(下文简称AT&T)被一家名为“权力的游戏”的公司收购了。他们的怀疑是可以理解的。AT&T在全美各地的手机商店,似乎已经被一个隐约带有中世纪色彩的工业巨头接管了。这些店面摆满了兰尼斯特家族、史塔克家族和其他维斯特洛派系的徽章,此外还有服装、武器、饰有权游图案的智能手机机壳、无线充电器和水瓶。在AT&T旗下的TBS电视台,大学篮球锦标赛“疯狂三月”的观众们看到了一些略显怪异,以权游为主题的赛事宣传广告和推文(“派遣一只渡鸦——它们将飞向#精英八强。#疯狂三月”)。作为《权力的游戏》崛起的另一个标志,“铁王座”本身(或者更确切地说,一个7英尺高、310磅重的复制品)非常醒目地矗立在AT&T位于达拉斯总部的大厅里。

AT&T的首席执行官兰德尔·斯蒂芬森每天都要经过这个王座,但他并没有沉溺在对“七国君王”这个头衔的无限遐想中。在他的世界里,《权力的游戏》象征着另一种东西:它犹如第一道微光,初步展示了AT&T未来将采用的运作方式,尽管斯蒂芬森的这个愿景极其昂贵。利用公司财产宣传这部剧集最后一季在AT&T旗下电视台HBO的盛大首映,仅仅是他所预见的协同效应的一个小例子而已;例如,购买最高一档流量套餐的AT&T无线客户,也可以免费收看HBO。这是另一场重大战役的结果。今年2月,AT&T与美国司法部旷日持久的官司宣布终结。经此一役,这家电信巨头终于跨越法律障碍,开始充分整合它两年多前同意收购的时代华纳(Time Warner)顶级媒体资产,其中最突出的当属HBO、华纳兄弟(Warner Bros.)、CNN、TBS和TNT。

无论是在战略上,还是在规模上,斯蒂芬森的战略都令人叹为观止。这是所有《财富》美国500强企业中正在进行的最大变革。AT&T的主要传统竞争对手威瑞森(Verizon)选择了一条完全不同的道路,而斯蒂芬森的新竞争对手则处于完全不同的业务领域。毕竟,当AT&T还是“贝尔大妈”的时候,它还以自身业务的古板、可靠和乏味自豪呢。斯蒂芬森惊叹道:“我现在思考如何应对亚马逊(Amazon)和Netflix的时间,与我花在威瑞森和康卡斯特(Comcast)上的时间一样多。”

不过,斯蒂芬森也必须考虑电话业务,因为电话仍然是他目前最大一块业务——但它没有增长,这给AT&T的股价和财务前景带来了压力。这也有助于解释该公司为何启动收购狂潮,为何承受如此巨额的债务。2015年以670亿美元收购DirecTV, 2018年以1040亿美元收购时代华纳,让AT&T成为美国负债最重的非金融公司。包括租赁融资在内(会计师表示,它现在必须算作负债),该公司目前的负债超过2000亿美元。这大约相当于中国的台湾地区的外债规模。这笔巨额债务准确无误地反映了斯蒂芬森的胆略。“AT&T收购时代华纳的雄心远不止改变一家富有传奇色彩的美国公司。”长期从事电信行业分析的AT&T评论家克雷格·莫菲特说。“它的目标就是要彻底重塑媒体生态系统。”

不管这一战略的结果如何,斯蒂芬森都得负起全责。自2007年以来,他一直担任首席执行官,现年59岁的他有时间完成这一使命。这笔巨额赌注的结果将定义他的职业生涯,也将决定这家在美国家喻户晓,现在高居《财富》美国500强第9位的重量级公司的未来。AT&T停滞不前的股价表明,投资者还远远没有被说服。

AT&T was not actually acquired by a company called Game of Thrones Corp. earlier this year, though consumers could be forgiven for wondering. AT&T cell phone stores across the land seemed to have been taken over by a vaguely medieval industrial behemoth that had filled them with the heraldry of House Lannister, House Stark, and other Westerosi factions, plus costumes, weapons, and GOT-emblazoned smartphone cases, wireless chargers, and water bottles. Viewers of March Madness on AT&T-owned TBS saw slightly weird GOT-themed promos for the college basketball tournament and GOT-themed tweets (“Send a raven—they’re on to the #Elite8. #MarchMadness”). Another sign of GOT’s ascendance: The Iron Throne itself—or rather, a seven-foot-high, 310-pound replica of it—sits prominently in the lobby of AT&T headquarters in Dallas.

AT&T chief Randall Stephenson walks past that throne every day, but he doesn’t think much about the Lord of the Seven Kingdoms. In his world, Game of Thrones symbolizes something else: the first faint glimmers of how his costly vision for AT&T will work. Using company properties to publicize the show’s final-season premiere on AT&T-owned HBO is a minor example of the synergies he foresees; AT&T wireless customers with top-tier plans can also get HBO for free, for example. That’s a result of another titanic battle, the end in February of AT&T’s fight with the U.S. Department of Justice to win legal clearance to fully integrate operations with the Time Warner A-list media properties AT&T had agreed to buy more than two years earlier: most prominently, HBO, Warner Bros., CNN, TBS, and TNT.

Stephenson’s strategy is breathtaking in scale and scope, the largest transformation underway at any company in the Fortune 500. AT&T’s main traditional competitor, Verizon, has chosen an entirely different path, and Stephenson’s new rivals are in markedly different businesses. Back when AT&T was Ma Bell, after all, it was proudly staid, reliable, and boring. Stephenson marvels, “I spend as much time thinking about Amazon and Netflix as I do thinking about Verizon and Comcast now.”

Stephenson also must think about the phone business, though, because it remains his biggest business by far—and it’s not growing, putting AT&T’s stock price and its financial future under pressure. That explains the company’s buying spree—and its massive debt load. Buying DirecTV in 2015 for $67 billion and Time Warner in 2018 for $104 billion has made AT&T the most heavily indebted nonfinancial company in America. Including lease obligations, which the accountants say must now be counted as debt, the company owes over $200 billion. That’s about the size of the external debt of Taiwan. Such massive debt merely matches Stephenson’s audacity. “AT&T’s ambition in acquiring Time Warner goes far beyond transforming a storied American company,” says Craig Moffett, a longtime telecom analyst and an AT&T critic. “Its goal is nothing less than a complete reinvention of the media ecosystem.”

Whatever the outcome of the strategy, Stephenson owns it. He has been CEO since 2007, and now, at age 59, he has time to see it through. How his gigantic bet turns out will define his career and determine the future of one of America’s most distinguished corporate names and largest companies, No. 9 on the Fortune 500. Right now, AT&T’s stalled stock price suggests that investors are far from convinced.

****

这个宏大愿景的第一步是,整合媒体和电信业务的所有主要元素,这是任何公司都没有从事过的伟业。时代华纳旗下的电影公司和电视工作室制作了一些世界上最成功、最受尊敬的娱乐节目。它的有线电视网络——包括TBS、TNT、CNN、卡通网络(Cartoon Network)和特纳经典电影(Turner Classic Movies)——都是分销巨头。DirecTV通过其卫星系统将这些网络和其他网络传输到家庭中。再加上AT&T的无线和固定电话客户,斯蒂芬森自豪地说,AT&T拥有“1.7亿个推送内容的分销点。”

理论上讲,坐拥这样的媒体资产组合,AT&T可以获得前所未有的优势。它能够通过向客户提供其专有内容来彰显其快速商品化的无线网络。它可以通过旗下所有的电视网络向广大观众推送其内容。因为它通过有线、无线和卫星网络收集了海量客户数据,AT&T可以使广告客户以新的精度来投放他们的信息——在某些情况下,甚至能够追踪那些看过特定广告的客户,从而衡量广告的效果,而广告客户也乐意为这项服务支付高额溢价。

AT&T转型的下一步,也很可能是最大和最明显的一步,将是在今年第四季度推出一个视频点播互联网流媒体服务。这意味着,它将成为Netflix的竞争对手。该公司表示,这项新服务最终将包括原创内容、HBO、多家电影公司的电影,以及HBO和华纳兄弟的内容库。

让这一切成为现实是约翰·斯坦基的工作。他在电话公司工作了34年,现在负责运营前时代华纳,现已更名为“华纳媒体”的公司业务。他说,这个宏伟计划的核心是老电话公司不太了解的东西:情感。手机已经变得不可或缺,须臾不可离,以至于人们对它产生了一种情感依附,“我们能够通过这种连接放置内容,这是维系人们对手机的情感依附的另一种方式。”在曼哈顿时代华纳中心行政楼层的一间阳光明媚的会议室接受《财富》杂志专访时,斯坦基这样说道。

斯坦基敏锐地意识到,他正在跳入一个突然挤满竞争对手的市场。这些竞争对手深谙如何与消费者建立情感联系。迪士尼在4月11日发布声明称,将于11月12日推出Disney+流媒体服务。这则消息让投资者激动不已,该股次日飙涨12%。在全球拥有14亿设备用户的苹果公司,将于今秋推出流媒体服务。拥有3100万有线和宽带用户,以及NBC和环球影城(Universal Studios)的康卡斯特,计划明年竞逐流媒体战场。Netflix和亚马逊已经准备好迎接这场冲击,它们各自都拥有数千万流媒体客户,以及关于所有这些客户的海量数据。

有多少流媒体订阅服务能够存活下来?“我认为这个数字在10到2之间,可能在这个范围的低端。”斯坦基说。“对于我们这样的公司来说,如果最终能剩下四五家,那就是一个很好的结果了。我认为,我们很有机会成为其中之一。”

这种期望是否现实还有待观察。“我们知道,Netflix在所有美国电视流媒体服务中满意度最高,亚马逊和迪士尼控制的Hulu紧随其后,这三家公司都处于相对安全的位置。”电视研究公司Ampere Analysis的托比·霍勒兰指出。“这让Disney+最有可能取代小众流媒体服务。”

但在AT&T设想的“协作效应”愿景中,订阅收入仅仅是它计划从其高价收购的内容中获利的方式之一。一个看似平凡的重要好处是,这些内容有助于减少无线用户的流失。AT&T的高管约翰·多诺万坦言,对于这样一家拥有1.53亿订户的公司来说,哪怕似乎微不足道的客户流失率(去年是1.67%)也是一个天大的问题。2018年,AT&T的总营收高达1710亿美元(截至2018年6月15日,这个数字包括时代华纳的收入),而多诺万负责的无线、DirecTV、有线宽带和商业服务业务占到其中的79%。他说:“10个基点的流失率就是10亿美元。”该公司的研究表明,在客户的手机上提供恰切的独家内容可以显著降低流失率。客户可能会说:“‘这东西太棒了。我太太拽着我外出购物,我坐在那里看足球比赛来打发时间。’只要用户每月观看一次对他产生影响的视频,他就会说:‘我的这部手机绝不会放弃AT&T。’”多诺万说。当这种情况发生时,“客户流失率就会减少30个基点,也就是少损失30亿美元。那可都是真金白银啊。”

AT&T独特的聚合客户数据宝藏,让整个提议如虎添翼。通过DirecTV和AT&T直接面向消费者的流媒体服务投放可寻址广告时,这些数据将展现巨大的价值;广告也可以不那么精确地经由前特纳网络投放。“假设你和你的邻居都是DirecTV的客户,你们同时在看同一个直播节目。”布莱恩·莱塞说。他负责监管AT&T庞大的数据分析业务,从而为这种广告提供支持。“我们现在可以动态地改变广告。也许你的邻居想去度假,所以他们看到一个度假广告。而你想买辆车,你就会看到一则汽车广告。如果你在用手机观看内容,并且不在家,我们可以为你量身定制,你也许会看到一个跟该地区某个汽车零售商相关的广告。”

当然,这种精确定位已经给雅虎、谷歌和Facebook招致隐私问题。这就是为什么AT&T要求用户允许该公司使用他们的数据;与其他公司一样,AT&T将这些数据匿名化,并将这些受众归类为不同的组别——比如,把那些有可能购买皮卡的消费者归为一组——而不是针对特定的个人。不管你是如何看到定向汽车广告的,AT&T都可以使用你手机上的地理位置数据来查看你是否去了经销商那里,或许还可以使用汽车制造商的数据来查看你是否报名参加试驾活动,然后告诉汽车制造商,“瞧瞧,这就是这则广告的投资回报率。”莱塞说。AT&T声称,营销商愿意为这类广告支付四倍于正常费率的代价。

如果把斯蒂芬森组装起来的所有元素结合在一起,你就会发现,“AT&T不能再被称为电信公司。”评论家莫菲特说。斯蒂芬森并不反对这种描述。他现在称AT&T是“一家现代媒体公司”。

The grand vision begins with combining all the major elements of the media and telecom businesses, which no company has ever done before. Time Warner’s film and TV studios make some of the most successful and honored entertainment anywhere. Its cable networks—including TBS, TNT, CNN, Cartoon Network, and Turner Classic Movies—are distribution powerhouses. DirecTV carries those networks and others into homes through its satellite system. Add in AT&T’s wireless and landline customers, and Stephenson boasts that AT&T has “170 million distribution points we can push this through.”

With such a combination of media assets, the theory goes, AT&T can achieve unprecedented advantages. It can differentiate its fast-commoditizing wireless network by offering customers deals on its proprietary content. It can expose its content to vast audiences through all its networks. Because it collects staggering volumes of customer data through its wired, wireless, and satellite networks, it can enable advertisers to target their messages with new precision and, in some cases, even track customers who have seen specific ads and thus gauge how the ads performed—services for which advertisers will gladly pay a big premium.

The immediate next step in the transformation, likely the biggest and most visible step, will be to introduce a video-on-demand Internet streaming service—a Netflix competitor—in this year’s fourth quarter. AT&T says the new service eventually will include original content, HBO, movies from multiple studios, and library content from HBO and Warner Bros.

Making that all happen is the job of John Stankey, a 34-year phone company man who’s now in charge of the former Time Warner, rechristened WarnerMedia. At the heart of the grand plan, he says, is something the old phone company wouldn’t have known much about: emotion. Cell phones have become so indispensable that people are emotionally attached to them, and “our ability to now place content with that connectivity is another way to keep it emotionally relevant,” says Stankey, sitting in a sunlit conference room on the executive floor of the Time Warner Center in Manhattan.

Stankey is acutely aware that he’s jumping into a market suddenly swarming with competitors who know a lot about connecting emotionally with consumers. Disney will launch its Disney+ streaming service on Nov. 12, and investors were so wowed by an April 11 announcement that they bid the stock up 12% the next day. Apple, with its 1.4 billion devices worldwide, will debut a streaming service this fall. And Comcast, with 31 million cable and broadband customers plus ownership of NBC and Universal Studios, plans to enter the streaming fray next year. Netflix and Amazon, girding for the onslaught, are well fortified with tens of millions of streaming customers each and prodigious data on all of them.

How many subscription streaming services can survive? “I think it’s someplace between 10 and two, and it’s probably on the lower side of that scale,” Stankey says. “A good outcome for a company like ours is that there are four or five. I think we’ve got a position where we can be one of those.”

Whether that expectation is realistic remains to be seen. “We know that Netflix has the highest satisfaction score of any U.S. TV [streaming] service, with Amazon and [Disney-controlled] Hulu close behind, placing all three in relatively secure positions,” notes Toby Holleran of Ampere Analysis. “This makes Disney+ most likely to displace the niche streaming services.”

But in AT&T’s synergistic vision, subscription revenue is just one of the ways the company plans to profit from its expensively acquired content. An important benefit, seemingly mundane, is reducing churn in wireless subscribers. Even a little churn—AT&T’s was 1.67% last year—is a big problem when you’ve got 153?million subscribers, says John Donovan, who runs AT&T’s wireless, DirecTV, wired broadband, and business services units—79% of the company’s $171 billion in 2018 revenue (which included Time Warner as of June 15, 2018). “Ten basis points of churn is a billion dollars,” he says, and company research shows that giving customers the right exclusive content on their phones can slow churn significantly. A customer might say, “?‘This thing’s awesome. My spouse took me out shopping, and I sat and watched football.’ It only takes one impactful video viewing per month for someone to say, ‘I am never giving up AT&T on this phone,’” Donovan says. And when that happens, “you have 30 basis points less churn—3 billion bucks. It’s real money.”

Adding strength to the whole proposition is AT&T’s unique aggregate customer data trove and its value in addressable advertising over DirecTV and AT&T’s direct-to-consumer streaming services; ads can also be directed less precisely through the former Turner networks. “Say you and your neighbor are both DirecTV customers and you’re watching the same live program at the same time,” says Brian Lesser, who oversees the vast data-crunching operation that supports this kind of advertising at AT&T. “We can now dynamically change the advertising. Maybe your neighbor’s in the market for a vacation, so they get a vacation ad. You’re in the market for a car, you get a car ad. If you’re watching on your phone, and you’re not at home, we can customize that and maybe you get an ad specific to a car retailer in that location.”

Such targeting has caused privacy headaches for Yahoo, Google, and Facebook, of course. That’s why AT&T requires that customers give permission for use of their data; like those other companies, it anonymizes that data and groups it into audiences—for example, consumers likely to be shopping for a pickup truck—rather than targeting specific individuals. Regardless of how you see a directed car ad, say, AT&T can then use geolocation data from your phone to see if you went to a dealership and possibly use data from the automaker to see if you signed up for a test-drive—and then tell the automaker, “Here’s the specific ROI on that advertising,” says Lesser. AT&T claims marketers are paying four times the usual rate for that kind of advertising.

Combine all the elements that Stephenson has assembled, and “AT&T can no longer be called a telecom company,” says Moffett. Stephenson doesn’t object to the characterization. He now calls AT&T “a modern media company.”

****

在他的大部分职业生涯中,斯蒂芬森从未想过他会做这样的事情。他出生于俄克拉荷马城,1982年开始为西南贝尔电话公司工作,当时他还在读大学。1986年在俄克拉荷马大学获得会计硕士学位后,他成为西南贝尔电话公司财务部门一位迅速崛起的明星,一度被派往墨西哥城监督该公司在墨西哥电信(Telmex)持有的股权。在那里,他与另一位投资者,最终成为亿万富翁的卡洛斯·斯利姆密切合作。2005年,彼时已经更名为SBC的西南贝尔收购了AT&T,后者是AT&T在1984年解体后剩下的公司。合并后的公司以AT&T的名字命名——它毕竟是美国最知名、最有价值的公司之一。两年后,47岁的斯蒂芬森成为首席执行官。

如今,他在AT&T位于达拉斯老城区中心地带的一栋高层建筑中占据了一间非常不起眼的四楼办公室。这栋建筑位于1912年建造的阿道弗斯酒店的斜对角,距离著名的奢侈品门店Neiman Marcus仅一个街区之遥。他回忆说,从技术的角度看,直到最近,按照他现在尝试的方式来重塑传媒业还被认为是不可能的。“我记得在21世纪初曾经问过:‘你有没有想过语音会从固定电话转移到移动电话上?’很多人说:‘不可能的事。根本就没有足够的容量,没有足够的频谱。’你仔细瞧瞧,看看发生了什么。”他后来又问道,将来有没有可能通过手机网络访问互联网,“得到的回答完全一样:‘绝不可能!这是不可能发生的。’随后,iPhone横空出世。然后我们问道:‘什么正在成为这些设备上最受欢迎的应用?’视频。‘你容得下视频吗?’‘不,不可能。’”

他得到了一个教训:当工程师告诉你什么事情是不可能的时候,不要相信他们。他回忆说:“我们当时相信,完全的视频传输能力将变得非常重要。”至关重要的是,他想要做的不仅仅是提供一个可以处理视频的无线网络;他还想提供视频本身。但这里有个问题:“我们没有权利做这方面的事情。”解决方案是:“DirecTV是可以利用的。”像有线电视公司一样,它有权播放大量视频节目。于是,AT&T在2015年收购了DirecTV。“几个月内,我们就获得了DirecTV拥有的全部内容组合,并将其移植到移动设备上。”

购买这些权利,彻底激起了斯蒂芬森的胃口。展望未来,他的团队得出结论,如果即将到来的4G和5G网络是传输视频的主要载体,那么“在一定程度上控制自身的命运将变得非常重要——也就是说,你得拥有优质内容才行。”他说。“正是这一点,让我们走上了渴望拥有大量优质内容的道路。”这是一个价值1040亿美元的决定。

For most of his career, Stephenson never imagined he’d be doing anything like any of this. He was born in Oklahoma City and started working for Southwestern Bell Telephone in 1982, when he was still in college. After getting a master’s degree in accounting at the University of Oklahoma in 1986, he became a fast-rising star in finance jobs at Southwestern Bell, at one point being posted to Mexico City to oversee the company’s stake in Telmex, where he worked closely with another big investor, eventual billionaire Carlos Slim. In 2005, Southwestern Bell (renamed SBC) bought AT&T, the remnant left after the 1984 breakup. The combined companies took the AT&T name, one of the best known and most valuable in America. Two years later, at age 47, Stephenson became CEO.

Today he occupies an understated fourth-floor office in AT&T’s high-rise in the heart of old downtown Dallas, kitty-corner from the 1912 Adolphus Hotel and a block down from the original Neiman Marcus store. Until recently, he recalls, remaking the media industry in the way he’s now attempting to do was supposed to be technologically impossible. “I remember in the early 2000s asking, ‘Do you ever think voice will just move off those landlines and onto mobile predominantly?’ and a lot of people said, ‘No way. There just isn’t enough capacity, not enough spectrum.’ And lo and behold, look what happened.” When he later asked about accessing the Internet through the cell network, “it was the exact same reply: ‘No way! It can never happen.’ And along came the iPhone. Then we asked, ‘What is now becoming the most desired application on these devices?’ Video. ‘And could you ever accommodate video?’ ‘No, there’s no way.’?”

He was learning a lesson: When the engineers tell you it’s impossible, don’t believe them. “Full video transportability we just believed was going to be important,” he recalls. Crucially, he also decided he wanted to do more than just offer a wireless network that could handle video; he wanted to offer video itself. But there was a problem: “We couldn’t get the rights to do any of it.” The solution: “DirecTV was available,” and like cable companies, it had rights to carry a lot of video programming. So AT&T bought DirecTV in 2015, and “within months we were able to take that full portfolio of content that DirecTV had the rights to, and we were porting it to the mobile device.”

Buying rights merely whetted Stephenson’s appetite. Thinking about the future, his team concluded that if the coming 4G and 5G networks would be mainly vehicles for delivering video, then “controlling your destiny to some degree would be really important—that is, owning premium content,” he says. “And that’s what took us down this path of desiring to own a big portfolio of premium content.” It was a $104 billion decision.

****

对斯蒂芬森来说,这样一种未来尤其具有吸引力,因为AT&T的过去,也就是它的电话业务,一直黯淡无光。被收购时代华纳这一戏剧性事件遮掩的,是AT&T的财务现实:尽管它产生了大量现金,但其整体业务仍然在下滑。尽管美国经济势头强劲,但AT&T的无线、固话、宽带和DirecTV业务在去年的运营收入均低于两年前,上述业务占该公司总营收的71%。更糟的是,下降速度出人意料地加快。多年来,华尔街一直在下调对AT&T 2019年息税折旧及摊销前利润(Ebitda)的共识预测。对于包括华纳传媒全年业绩在内的最新预测,低于2016年年中达成的共识预测,而当时收购时代华纳这笔交易甚至还没有被提及。

尽管核心业务在萎缩,但AT&T在付清所有账单之后,去年仍然产生了大约440亿美元的现金——也就是说,这家公司每周都有近10亿美元现金进账。去年,AT&T花了大约210亿美元用于资本投资,主要是建立和维护其全国无线网络,将其升级到5G,并在美国很多地区为家庭和企业客户安装光纤。它还向股东派送了130亿美元的股息;按最近30美元的股价计算,股息率为6.7%,这是美国所有大公司支付的最慷慨的股息之一。(高收益率是高派息和低股价的结果,这反映出投资者缺乏信心。)

事实上,AT&T最近的股价并不比八年前高。对债务的担忧,是其中很大一部分原因。在AT&T于去年6月完成对时代华纳收购后的第二天,穆迪将该公司的债务评级下调至仅比垃圾级高两个级别的水平。这家评级机构的理由足以让AT&T的股东感到寒心:“穆迪仍然认为,AT&T需要削减现金股息,以保持竞争力,因为它的新竞争对手们,包括其他媒体和科技巨头在内,基本上都拥有非常精炼的资产负债表。”(出于同样的原因,AT&T预计将用多余的现金偿还债务,并计划出售价值高达80亿美元的资产。)

在收购时代华纳之前,AT&T面临的危险是,在无线视频时代,其收入下滑速度将会加快。手机网络以往的所有用途——比如通话、发短信、上网——都是积极的,也就是说,客户在创造自己的体验。视频则不一样。它是被动的;其他人创造体验。如果它足够好,客户将会在他们已经为连接付费的基础上为它付费。斯蒂芬森和他的团队担心,无线连接业务的价值可能会从网络所有者转移到内容所有者手中。这就是为什么他认为收购时代华纳是AT&T掌控自身命运的必要举动。

投资者并不买账。他们不愿意将股价定得高于2011年的水平,这反映出市场对该公司的增长前景信心不足。事实上,在2016年夏天,也就是当年10月宣布收购时代华纳前不久,AT&T的股价要高得多,一度触及43美元。目前,大多数华尔街分析师建议投资者“持有”这只徘徊在30美元左右的股票。

持怀疑态度的人认为,AT&T的战略与其说是一个构思良好的长期计划,不如说是对近期问题的被动回应。股东咨询公司ISS的高级顾问班尼特·斯图尔特指出:“他们正在花钱购买销售增长,而不是推动内生性销售增长。”长期以来,反垄断机构似乎不太可能允许AT&T收购另一家电话公司,因此,AT&T被迫在别处寻找收购对象。“推动DirecTV交易的,从来都不是基于对AT&T需要什么才能成功所做的分析,而是该公司被允许收购什么样的公司。”华尔街的分析师克雷格·莫菲特表示。“这是一种糟糕的策略制定方式。”

莫菲特甚至质疑AT&T拥有内容的必要性。“这是否意味着他们打算让AT&T独家分销时代华纳的内容?不是的。在反垄断审查期间,他们承诺不会这样做。”他还对将华纳内容与AT&T分销结合起来(比如向购买最高一档流量套餐的无线客户免费提供HBO)能够产生协作效应这一整体概念提出质疑。他宣称:“迄今为止,AT&T向消费者提供综合服务的策略,其实相当于简单的打折,并产生了毁灭性影响。”莫菲特还怀疑AT&T无法兑现它对投资者的承诺,即每年节省15亿美元的成本。AT&T的首席财务官约翰·斯蒂芬斯表示,这些成本节省计划“仍在目标之内”。

另一位质疑者认为,AT&T在考虑这一问题时不够严谨。曾经为威瑞森提供过建议的资深战略顾问罗杰·马丁表示,为掌控自身命运而进行垂直收购,并不一定是一个坏主意。“如果你能通过投资,在行业上游或下游占据一席之地,并在那里获得竞争优势,那当然是明摆着的好事。”他说。关键是你能否收购一家拥有真正竞争优势的公司,“因为如果你做不到这一点,它只会成为你脖子上的锚,压得你喘不过气来。”

马丁很清楚,华纳媒体无法拥有内容创作方面的竞争优势。“其他企业在这一领域的投入规模是前所未有的。”分析师估计,迪士尼今年将在内容方面花费210亿美元,Netflix将投入150亿美元,AT&T将投入140亿美元。(没有一家公司会对这些估计发表评论。)“如果你是AT&T,你的市场位置在哪儿?”马丁问道。“你在内容上的花费比Netflix和迪士尼少,而且你也无法在5G上打败威瑞森。那么你还剩下什么?”他认为,AT&T将陷入战略大师迈克尔·波特所称的最糟糕的战略位置:夹在中间。

对于这样一个强手林立的领域,就连沃伦·巴菲特也感到畏缩。“每个人只有两个眼球,只有几个小时的自由支配时间——也许一天就四五个小时。”最近在一个慈善活动发表演讲时,他评论了一番娱乐业。“一些非常强大的竞争对手将争夺这些眼球,而这些眼球不会翻倍。一些拥有海量资源的聪明人正在想方设法,试图再占用你半个小时的时间。”他的评价是:“我本人没有兴趣玩这场游戏。这对我来说太难了。”

但凡巴菲特不愿涉足的生意领域,听起来都前途渺茫,但斯蒂芬森并不认同这位传奇投资人的说法。他承认“一天只有16个小时的清醒时间,但我们还没有把这16个小时填满。”在他的办公室窗户下,是车流如织的商业街。他说,当5G网络开启自动驾驶汽车时代的时候,街上的交通状况将大为好转。“如果你在这些自动驾驶汽车中占据最大份额,你就能占据普通人另外两个小时的屏幕时间。”

The future was particularly appealing to Stephenson because the past, AT&T’s phone business, had been looking so bleak. Lost in the drama over the Time Warner acquisition is AT&T’s financial reality: Though it generates tons of cash, its overall business is in decline. Operating revenues in wireless and landline phones and broadband plus DirecTV, accounting for 71% of the total, were all lower last year than they were two years earlier, despite a robust economy. What’s worse, the declines are accelerating unexpectedly. Wall Street has been lowering its consensus forecast of AT&T’s 2019 Ebitda, a measure of operating cash flow that subtracts debt--service and other expenses, for years. The latest forecast, including a full year of WarnerMedia results, is less than the consensus forecast from mid-2016, before a possible Time Warner deal had ever been mentioned.

Even while shrinking, the company’s core businesses produced some $44 billion of cash last year after all the bills had been paid—that is, AT&T had almost a billion dollars coming in the door each week. Last year it spent about $21?billion of it on capital investments, mainly building and maintaining its nationwide wireless network, upgrading it to 5G, and installing fiber for home and business customers in much of the country. It sent another $13?billion to shareholders as dividends; at the recent stock price of about $30, the dividend yield is 6.7%, one of the most generous dividends paid by any major company in America. (High yields are the result of big payouts and low stock prices, a reflection of a lack of investor confidence.)

In fact, AT&T’s stock price was recently no higher than where it was eight years ago. Concern about the debt is a big part of the reason. The day after AT&T closed on its purchase of Time Warner last June, Moody’s downgraded AT&T’s debt rating to two notches above junk. The rating agency’s rationale was enough to chill any AT&T stockholder’s blood: “Moody’s continues to believe AT&T will need to reduce its cash dividends in order to remain competitive with its new peer group that includes other media and technology giants, many of which have very lean balance sheets.” (AT&T expects to pay down debt with excess cash and is looking to sell assets worth up to $8 billion for the same reason.)

Prior to buying Time Warner, the danger for AT&T was that its revenue declines would accelerate in the age of wireless video. All the previous uses of the cell network—talking, texting, accessing the Internet—are active uses in which customers create their own experiences. Video is different. It’s passive; someone else creates the experience, and if it’s good enough, customers will pay for it beyond what they’re already paying for connectivity. Stephenson and his team feared that the value in the business of wireless connectivity could migrate from the owner of the network to the owner of the content. That’s why he framed the purchase of Time Warner as necessary for AT&T to control its destiny.

Investors aren’t buying it. Their unwillingness to price the stock higher than it was in 2011 reflects weak confidence in the company’s growth. In fact, the stock was much higher in the summer of 2016, hitting $43 not long before the deal for Time Warner was announced that October. Most Wall Street analysts now rate the stock a “hold” at around $30.

Skeptics contend that AT&T’s strategy is not a well-conceived long-term plan so much as a response to near-term problems. “They’re buying sales growth, not generating sales growth organically,” notes Bennett Stewart, a senior adviser to the shareholder advisory firm ISS. It had long seemed unlikely that antitrust authorities would let AT&T buy another phone company, so it has been forced to look elsewhere for acquisitions. “The DirecTV deal was never driven by an analysis of what AT&T needed in order to succeed, but rather by what the company would be allowed to buy,” argues Craig Moffett, the Wall Street analyst. “That’s a terrible way to approach strategy.”

Moffett even questions the need for AT&T to own content at all. “Did that mean that they planned to make Time Warner content exclusive to AT&T distribution? No. They promised not to” during the antitrust trial. He questions the whole concept of synergies from combining Warner content with AT&T distribution, such as offering HBO free to wireless customers with top-tier plans. “AT&T’s strategy for delivering an integrated offering to consumers has heretofore amounted to simple discounting, and to devastating effect,” he says. Moffett also doubts AT&T can achieve the $1.5 billion in annual cost savings it has promised investors. John Stephens, AT&T’s chief financial officer, says those cost-saving plans “remain on target.”

Another skeptic believes AT&T wasn’t rigorous enough in thinking it all through. Making a vertical acquisition in order to control your destiny isn’t necessarily a bad idea, says Roger Martin, a longtime strategy consultant who has advised Verizon in the past. “If you can buy into a part of the industry upstream or downstream and you can have competitive advantage there, it’s kind of a no-brainer,” he says. The key is whether you can acquire a company that holds true competitive advantage—“because if you can’t, it’ll just be the anchor around your neck.”

It’s clear to Martin that WarnerMedia cannot hold a competitive advantage in content creation. “Others are dropping unprecedented levels of spending into the business,” he says. Analysts estimate Disney will spend $21 billion on content this year, Netflix $15 billion, and AT&T $14 billion. (None of the companies will comment on those estimates.) “If you’re AT&T, where do you stand?” Martin asks. “You’re spending less on content than Netflix and Disney, and you won’t beat Verizon on 5G. Where does that leave you?” The answer, he believes, is the dreaded locale identified by strategy authority Michael Porter as the worst place for any company to be strategically: caught in the middle.

Even Warren Buffett quails at the prospect of competing in such a powerful field of rivals. “Everybody has just got two eyeballs, and they’ve got x hours of discretionary time?…?maybe four or five hours a day,” he said recently at a charity event, speaking generally about the entertainment industry. “You’ve got some very, very, very big players that are going to fight over those eyeballs. The eyeballs aren’t going to double. You have very smart people with lots of resources trying to figure out how to grab another half-hour of your time.” His assessment: “I would not want to play in that game myself. That’s too tough for me.”

Any business that Buffett wants to avoid sounds unpromising, but Stephenson rejects the legendary investor’s premise. Acknowledging that “there are only 16 waking hours in the day,” he says, “Well, we haven’t filled up the 16 hours yet.” He nods toward his office window over Commerce Street with its busy traffic, which he says will ease when 5G networks enable autonomous cars. “When you have the lion’s share of those cars autonomous, for the average person that’s another two hours of availability of screen time, consuming video.”

****

更大的现实是,电信业多年来大肆宣扬的“融合”终于到来(也正是这一事实,让人很难理解AT&T的未来)。几乎所有的数据——文本、你的位置历史、CT扫描、《北非谍影》——都是数字化的,几乎任何人都可以在任何地点,任何时间立即获得。任何公司都可以启动流媒体服务,任何消费者都可以观看。这是一个无限的、不断流动,在某种程度上前所未有的环境。

当斯蒂芬森面对众多质疑者时,这一现实可能会让他感到慰藉。有人可能会争辩说,这些质疑者的逻辑建立在关于一个不复存在的世界的旧假设之上。另一个可能会让他获得进一步安慰的事实是,他可以将华纳媒体的杀手级内容与一个即将在几年后升级为5G的全国性无线网络结合起来,而后者恰恰是其他媒体没有,也不太可能拥有的东西。但另外三个无线网络(如果Sprint和T-Mobile合并的话,就只剩下两个)是可以出租的。此外,在一个流动的数字世界里,谁知道巴菲特所称的“拥有海量资源的聪明人”会做些什么呢?

所有这些不确定性、挑战和竞争似乎都令人生畏。但采取另一种态度是可能的,也许是必要的。“这并不令人气馁。相反,它令人兴奋。”斯蒂芬森的副手,AT&T的非媒体业务负责人多诺万这样说道。“这是最好的时代。斯蒂芬森给予这家公司最大的礼物就是让我们知道,许多人认为这种愿景很难实现,并且相信我们错了。每天早上醒来,对自己说:‘我们拥有所有这些工具和武器,而全世界都认为我们错了。’这就是动力。”

这是一个令人愉快、充满希望的视角。但多诺万和他的老板知道,AT&T并不是唯一一支拥有强大武器的内容+分销大军。这一切不由得让人联想起那部中世纪史诗奇幻剧集中充满扭曲的血腥情节。只不过,对于AT&T来说, 这其中的利害关系是实实在在的。(财富中文网)

本文的另一版本登载于《财富》杂志2019年6月刊,标题为《AT&T的转型之路》。

译者:任文科

The larger reality, the fact that makes one’s head spin trying to grasp AT&T’s future, is the long-heralded arrival of what for years the telecom industry called “convergence.” Virtually all data—a text, your location history, a CT scan, Casablanca—is digital and available almost instantly to almost anyone, anywhere, anytime. Any company can start a streaming service, and any consumer can watch it. It’s an endlessly, constantly fluid environment to a degree that has never existed before.

That reality may comfort Stephenson as he faces the many skeptics. Their logic is moored to old assumptions about a world that no longer exists, one could argue. He may find further comfort in knowing he can combine WarnerMedia’s killer content with something no other media company has or is likely to have, a nationwide wireless network that will be 5G in a few years. But three other wireless networks (two, if Sprint and T-Mobile merge) are available for rent, and in a fluid, digital world, who knows what Buffett’s “very smart people with lots of resources” might do?

The uncertainties, the challenges, and the competition all seem daunting. But it’s possible, maybe necessary, to take a different attitude. “It’s not daunting—it’s exciting,” says Donovan, Stephenson’s lieutenant who runs AT&T’s nonmedia operations. “These are the best of times. The greatest gift that Randall has given to this corporation is the inspiration of knowing that people believe that it’s difficult, believe that we may be wrong. It’s so amazing to wake up and say, ‘We have all these tools and weapons, and the world thinks we might be wrong.’ That is motivation.”

It’s a cheerful, hopeful perspective. But Donovan and his boss know AT&T isn’t the only content-plus-distribution army with powerful weapons. Come to think of it, it calls to mind the twisted, bloody plotlines in a certain medieval fantasy series. Except for AT&T, the stakes are quite real.

A version of this article appears in the June 2019 issue of Fortune with the headline “AT&T’s Heavy Lift.”

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