The blockbuster WarnerMedia-Discovery deal is especially good news for HBO Max, billionaire media mogul John Malone told CNBC’s David Faber.
In an interview that aired Monday, Malone said his previous reservations about HBO Max’s ability to be a dominant player in the crowded digital-streaming landscape will be addressed once the AT&T-owned service is under the same roof as Discovery.
“I thought they were going to struggle with getting the kind of subscriber growth in the U.S. that they were hoping for. And I think, in fact, that’s true,” said Malone, a Discovery board member whose voting stake in the company is more than 25%.
Malone thinks the new firm could join Netflix and Disney+ as a true global powerhouse.
“I think we are not only going to be the third such platform, but I think we’ll be very competitive with the other two in terms of being able to satisfy the entertainment and curiosity and information needs of the world, basically, a worldwide platform,” Malone said.
Disney+ ended the fiscal second quarter with 103.6 million subscribers, according to the company. Netflix said last month it had almost 208 million subscribers worldwide.
AT&T said in April that HBO and HBO Max had a combined 44.2 million subscribers in the U.S. and nearly 64 million globally.
HBO Max, WarnerMedia’s flagship streaming property, debuted in the U.S. last May and plans an international expansion. In Malone’s view, that push will be aided by Discovery’s global know-how.
“For me, the problem with HBO Max is it had no ability to go international at the time. The combination with Discovery, given Discovery’s existing presence, large presence in 200 countries around the world with a great brand, … to me, that’s the great upside,” said the cable TV pioneer and longtime chairman of Liberty Media.
Malone made his comments in a wide-ranging interview with CNBC about the deal announced last week involving Discovery and AT&T’s WarnerMedia, which the telecom giant acquired less than three years ago.
If the transaction receives regulatory approval, WarnerMedia’s various media and entertainment properties including CNN, HBO and the Warner Bros. studio would be spun out of AT&T and combined with Discovery’s brands including HGTV, Food Network and Discovery Channel.
It would position the new company — which has yet to receive a new name — as a more formidable competitor in the fiercely competitive streaming video wars. In addition to WarnerMedia’s HBO Max, Discovery’s signature direct-to-consumer platform, Discovery+, launched in January.
Malone confident in David Zaslav’s leadership
Discovery CEO David Zaslav told CNBC last week he thinks the combined company could ultimately garner 400 million global streaming video subscribers — significantly more than any rivals.
“Netflix is a great company, Disney is a great company, but we have a portfolio of content that is very diverse and broadly appealing,” said Zaslav, who will lead the new company.
Malone said he has confidence in Zaslav’s management capabilities and believes in general that the tie-up between Discovery and WarnerMedia is beneficial. He also said he had no qualms about giving up his super-voting Discovery shares as part of the deal.
According to FactSet, Malone owns more than 93% of Discovery’s class B shares, which account for 10 votes per share compared with one vote per share for class A. His ownership of those shares enables his significant voting power in the company. Discovery also has a third class of stock known as series C.
The combined WarnerMedia-Discovery will have just one type of stock.
“My reaction was fine, that I thought that the alphabet soup that we have had served its purpose, had protected the company and given it a long view for a number of years. It was time when its usefulness was coming to an end, so I was fine with that,” said Malone, whose Liberty Media spun out its ownership stake in Discovery Communications into a separate entity in 2005.
Malone on AT&T CEO John Stankey’s ‘brave decision’
AT&T’s decision to spin out WarnerMedia signaled the end of its attempt to pair a content-producing asset alongside a wireless phone company.
Malone praised AT&T CEO John Stankey for pulling the plug on that integrated experiment, which some observers questioned from the moment the deal was initially announced in 2016. AT&T completed its acquisition of what was known as Time Warner in 2018 following a regulatory and court battle.
“John Stankey showed a hell of a lot of courage in making this decision at this time because he found himself really chasing two capital intensive, very competitive rabbits,” Malone said.
Stankey replaced Randall Stephenson as AT&T CEO in July 2020. He had been president and chief operating officer.
“[Stankey’s] idea to refocus AT&T on their primary, traditional business and allowing other management to pursue, with a different balance sheet, the direct consumer opportunity was a brave decision,” Malone said.