Can AT&T out-Netflix Netflix with its own video service?

The telco giant wants to wed the "TV everywhere" concept with its own mobile service. It could unveil something in the coming days.

Roger Cheng Former Executive Editor / Head of News
Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
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  • SABEW Best in Business 2011 Award for Breaking News Coverage, Eddie Award in 2020 for 5G coverage, runner-up National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Award for culture analysis.
Roger Cheng
4 min read

AT&T wants you watching its video service on one of its phones.

Roger Cheng/CNET

AT&T is on a mission to touch every aspect of your life.

The Dallas telco already runs huge wireless, home Internet and TV services. And it wants to connect your car, smartwatch, glucose monitor and potentially even your city.

Now, it's hoping to be responsible for something more: delivering video you want, when and where you want it and on any device you choose.

AT&T, the nation's second-largest wireless carrier, plans to take the wraps off a video service this month, the company's chief executive, Randall Stephenson, teased in December. The first hint could come as soon as this afternoon when it reports fourth-quarter earnings. The service will be available in the next few months, according to a person familiar with AT&T's plans.

The focus on making content widely available represents a shift in the way we watch video as fewer people remain anchored to big-screen TVs and instead huddle in front of phones, tablets or computers to select videos from YouTube and Netflix. For cord cutters -- the folks who have given up traditional cable -- AT&T offers a potentially attractive alternative because of the massive content library it secured when it bought DirecTV for $49 billion.

It's telling that when talking about "TV everywhere," the concept that you should be able to watch video on any device, Stephenson gave a shout-out to Netflix rather than traditional cable providers.

"I don't think anybody has executed it very well," he said of TV everywhere in a CNBC interview last week at the World Economic Forum. "Netflix has done the best."

Setting the foundation

Ever since AT&T closed its purchase of DirecTV in July, it has been working to renegotiate its deals with key channels and content providers like ESPN, HBO, Showtime and Viacom. The talks have centered on securing "stacking rights," or the ability to offer the back catalog of hit shows, like "Game of Thrones" or "The Daily Show, and the flexibility to stream them on to mobile devices.

That's in addition to marquee deals like DirecTV's access to National Football League games and its investment in a joint venture with the Chernin Group, Otter Media, which is designed to produce video for its customers.

"We have about as robust an entertainment portfolio of content for our customers as any (over-the-top) provider out there," Stephenson said at an investor conference last month.

While many channels offer their own app -- take HBOGo and WatchESPN -- AT&T envisions a single program that will let you flip through channels on your phone or tablet as if you were flipping through the guide on your TV. There would be no need to constantly log into different apps to prove you're a subscriber.

All of these deals could add up to a cord cutter's dream -- if AT&T decides to be aggressive with its offering.

Sling TV and PlayStation Vue each offer an over-the-top service with live channels, but lack the catalog of older shows and movies. Conversely, Netflix has few live or new shows aside from its original programming, but boasts a large library of older content. AT&T could offer something that's the best of both worlds.

Netflix, Sony and Sling declined to comment for this story.

AT&T just needs to have a good interface, plenty of content and an easy way to share the login information, said Roger Entner, a consultant for Recon Analytics. "AT&T can focus on great content that people are aware of," he said.

Same old bundle game?

The question is just how aggressive AT&T plans to be in offering a standalone service.

Given AT&T's roots as a service provider, the temptation to bundle the service has got to be tremendous. You saw it earlier this month when it brought back the unlimited data plan, which it originally killed five years ago, as a hook to get folks to sign up for DirecTV or U-verse TV.

AT&T plans to offer its unlimited data plan with the upcoming video service, according to the person familiar with the company's plans. While one version of the service will be available to cord cutters with their own Internet connection, AT&T hopes to tie customers back to a bundle, whether it's wireless, more traditional pay-TV or even its Digital Life smart home service.

"We are in the position with the assets we have to do it better than anybody," said Glenn Lurie, the head of AT&T's consumer mobility business, in an interview earlier this month. "Our vision is what our customers want."

Some customers, however, may just want the standalone video service. Executives have been mum on the details, but Stephenson is pretty high on what he sees so far.

"It's going to turn some heads," he said.