“By joining forces with Time Warner, we will fundamentally change the way people get information, communicate with others, buy products and are entertained.”
This hopeful view of an all-encompassing media company was laid out 16 years ago. AOL boss Steve Case said this as he announced the ill-fated plans to merge the businesses. That deal now has the honor of being the worst corporate merger in history. Resulting in almost $100 billion of write-downs within the first three years and a costly untangling of the two firms in 2009.
More Past Facts
For AT&T, the latest suitor for Time Warner, AOL’s original goal to unleash media products from their old platforms nevertheless rings a bell.
AT&T has been through several rounds of building up and then dismantling businesses to keep up with new technology under the close eye of regulators, stretching back to the invention of the telephone in 1876.
The firm, known by Americans as Ma Bell, was forced to sell off its stake in the Western Union telegraph network in 1913. After several decades of political agitation about the firm’s monopoly power, Ma Bell split itself into a series of “Baby Bells” in the 1980s, opening up the phone market to challengers such as Sprint and Verizon.
There was more upheaval in 1995 when AT&T once again separated into three companies to offer consumers telecoms, network equipment, and computers. The group still had an eye to build itself a new communications division, adding McCaw Cellular to its mobile phone network in 1994 at the cost of $12.6 billion. The firm also made the curious decision to buy and then spin off the cash machine manufacturer NCR.
Now, the boundaries between the different streams of communication have blurred once again. The boss of Amazon bought The Washington Post. The phone network Verizon paid $4.8 billion to acquire Yahoo. The internet provider Comcast snapped up the media group NBC Universal. And, as of a deal finally agreed late on Saturday night, AT&T is buying Time Warner for $108.7 billion.
AT&T has invested heavily in online infrastructure – spending $21 billion on networks last year alone – and buying up competitors in Mexico. AT&T’s sprawling interests means it is linked to possible bids for the British mobile networks EE and Vodafone, though neither of these offers got off the starting blocks and its core business remains in America.
Instead, it was the surprise $49 billion purchase of DirecTV last year that signaled AT&T’s primary focus now lay in online television. The firm now makes about a quarter of its revenues from entertainment, equal to its turnover from consumer telecoms. Businesses are still its biggest customer base.
The DirectTV deal was an effort to catch up with new players like Netflix and Amazon Fire; which allowed them to produce their own programming, instead of only buying traditionally produced programs.
Time Warner’s back catalog is a goldmine for any distributor. Game of Thrones, by the firm’s HBO network, is one of the most popular shows on satellite TV. Also in Time Warner’s Empire is the news provider CNN. There is the massive Harry Potter series – which will have three additions by 2020. Finally, there is The Big Bang Theory, the most iconic U.S. sitcom since Friends.
Shout out for The Big Bang Theory! This article will have a Part 2.