While it was far from the quasi-religious gatherings at Macworld or CES, Monday's New York launch of AT&T's DirecTV Now skinny bundle drew plenty of curious media and tech types.
As AT&T's entertainment and internet services CMO Brad Bentley put it during the presentation, "The challenge with skinny bundles is that your skinny is different from my skinny, which is different than someone else's skinny." The audience wondered: Just what kind of skinny were they going to see?
Once ushered inside to the 10th floor of a midtown Manhattan midrise building, attendees got their first look at the interface and nitty-gritty of the service. John Stankey, CEO of AT&T's entertainment division, declared the rollout to be bigger than the debut of the company's U-verse MVPD a decade ago.
"It's really important to understand that this is the foundation for how we are going to do things in the future," Stankey said. With the mobile-optimized platform on which DirecTV Now will commercially launch this week, "for the first time in our history, we have control of the whole stack."
Especially with AT&T's pending acquisition of Time Warner, that control gets even more interesting when injected with top-tier content from the likes of Turner, HBO and CNN. But once the descriptions and brand messaging subsided after the hour-long presentation, the initial takeaways in terms of how the service will compete started to become more clear. Here are five of the biggest:
—Pricing won't make the service an immediate game-changer. Interestingly, execs focused their comments on the 20 million homes currently outside of the cable ecosystem as their prime target. Execs described four tiers of service ranging from $35 to $70. A limited-time promotion offers 100 channels for $35, but the company declined to say how long it would last.
Supplementing CBS and Showtime, which are missing at launch, would tack on another $20 or so a month. There are some nice savings—$5 a month to add HBO or Cinemax to the bundle, for example—but truly matching traditional offerings won't come cheap. Stankey said customer growth and satisfaction will be the key measures of success—and while pricing doesn't necessarily represent a deep discount, the lack of contracts, installation hassles or even a monthly bill may prove enticing to some.
Bentley said roughly 5 to 6 million customers a day express interest in DirecTV's traditional service but find the credit checks and two-year contract to be a turn-off.
—Fullscreen is getting a heavy corporate push. The $5.99-a-month mobile video service and content hub, majority owned by Otter Media, AT&T's joint venture with Peter Chernin. It will be free for the first year for all Now subscribers. Accordingly, the middle section of the launch event morphed into a miniature Fullscreen NewFront. Talent from shows took turns onstage as trailers played and CEO George Strompolos explained the company to the uninitiated.
—Sports programming—arguably, along with news, the glue that is keeping a lot more cords from being cut—is present on DirecTV Now but not overly abundant. ESPN is in the fold, as are two RSNs, including YES, and a batch of cable and league networks (MLB, NBCSN, Tennis). But NFL Sunday Ticket and NFL Network are not available at launch and NFL fans would likely notice the lack of CBS games, especially since those games are also carved out of CBS All Access.
Stankey expressed some hope that a deal with CBS could eventually come. But he also asserted in the short run it isn't vital. "One could reasonably conclude that we will be working on a demographic that fits well without that (CBS) product. We will see over time," he said. Sports fans may have a slightly different view.
—Apart from certain channels, there are some other missing pieces in terms of functionality. At launch, there is no 5.1 surround sound, live-TV pausing, Roku availability or cloud DVR. While all are on the road map for the wider rollout, that could give some potential customers pause.
—Local programming will be scarce for a while. The strategy at launch is to feature the ABC, NBC and Fox O&Os. Those networks' primetime content will be viewable on demand. But if you are signing up in Boise, get your rabbit ears ready.
"A large portion of the population lives in the O&O markets. We will fill in the footprint from there," reasoned Stankey. "There are a lot of incentives for affiliates to come on fast. It takes time; there are thousands of them to do."