The news late on Friday was that AT&T was once again looking into unloading DirecTV. That fact isn’t necessarily surprising given the state of TV today — an environment that COVID-19 has sped headlong into streaming after years of conservative progress there — but it’s still noteworthy given how much AT&T’s entertainment futures once seemed to ride on the 2015 acquisition then worth $49 billion.
Now, you could argue DirecTV isn’t even the focus of AT&T’s TV business anymore, with 2020 emphasizing the launch of the HBO Max streaming service. With WarnerMedia holdings entrenching AT&T in both linear TV and streaming, DirecTV looks expendable. But who could they even sell to?
Satellite TV’s become a rural business, as evidenced by its advertising. With urban and suburbanites flocking to OTT, those without strong internet connections are the only ones left out. As a result, they’re sticking with DirecTV or chief rival Dish. As Bloomberg’s Tara Lachapelle recently noted, nearly half of satellite churn is between Dish and DirecTV (per a 2019 MoffettNathanson report). That means that right now: a) satellite subscriber losses aren’t necessarily as jarring as they may appear, and b) there’s still a demand for the services.
In terms of potential DirecTV suitors, Dish could make the most sense — and it’s a move Dish itself has floated at various points this year — because of that clearly defined market that includes a lot of shuffling between the two providers. DirecTV has the larger subscriber base and arguably better programming (for now, as part of AT&T, anyway). Dish has the extra flexibility of Sling, while DirecTV doesn’t currently have an OTT option since DirecTV Now transitioned to AT&T Now. At least with Sling, a combined DirecTV/Dish company would have a dog in the fight on the streaming front, while continuing to provide satellite service.
But does that mean satellite can survive, especially if it’s banking in part on a streaming extension? America’s rural expanse will continue to be that in the near future, but obviously shifting demographics (and an older population that doesn’t care as much about high-speed connections dying off) could bring change sooner. High-speed internet access is around the corner for a growing number of rural outposts, and if you believe that rural areas are satellite’s lifeline right now, then what happens when most have the internet speeds needed to access streaming content currently eluding them?
Should AT&T part ways with DirecTV it’s potentially the best survival play — right now — for both parties. AT&T gets to shed the operating costs around a service that’s losing money and has ceased really progressing in recent years. DirecTV could get a new lease on life by joining forces with competitive Dish, or perhaps (and less likely) one of the tech behemoths decides they’d like to resuscitate the brand with a new mission in mind.
Regardless of DirecTV’s next step, though, this does feel like the swan song for satellite as a viable competitor to linear and streaming services. Satellite may not disappear tomorrow, or even within the next decade. But with audiences streaming more and more, a shrinking market is going to catch up to satellite eventually. And if DirecTV survives, it seems unlikely it’ll primarily be a satellite TV provider when all is said and done.