AT&T Unveils DirecTV Now and Sets Channel Pacts With Taylor Swift, Reese Witherspoon

Todd Spangler
Variety

AT&T unveiled pricing plans for its DirecTV Now streaming service, set to launch Nov. 30, bringing the satcaster into the burgeoning business of offering internet-delivered TV packages for less than traditional cable or satellite services.

The telco also announced it has set separate streaming channel pacts with music superstar Taylor Swift and actress Reese Witherspoon, to offer exclusive content on DirecTV Now from each.

AT&T Entertainment Group CEO John Stankey billed DirecTV Now as “rules-free TV” for consumers who are cost-conscious and want the flexibility to stream channels across various devices.

The DirecTV Now pricing plans range from $35 a month for a collection of 60-plus channels, $50 a month for 80-plus channels, $60 a month for 100-plus channels, and top out at $70 a month for 120-plus channels. In addition, in a special limited-time offer, DirecTV Now subs can sign up for the 100-channel bundle for $35 per month.

And, in what is sure to be an introductory discounted price, AT&T said HBO and Cinemax can be added to DirecTV Now packages for $5 a month apiece. On a standalone basis, HBO Now costs $14.99 per month.

“We’re extending our entertainment portfolio for those who value premium content, but also want more TV freedom suited for their lifestyle, whether watching at home or on their mobile devices. This is TV your way,” Stankey said. The DirecTV Now details were released at a media event Monday at midtown Manhattan’s Venue57.

The DirecTV Now pricing is not as disruptive as analysts expected, with the exception of the $35 special introductory offer for the 100-channel bundle. Still, the plans are $20-$30 less per month that similar satellite packages, according to AT&T.

Part of AT&T’s strategy with DirecTV Now is to reinforce its wireless business: The OTT service, as expected, will be available to AT&T wireless customers to stream free of data charges. AT&T has defended such “zero-rating data” practices, after the FCC raised concerns that they could be anticompetitive.

“We want (consumers) to understand the benefits of AT&T wireless or an AT&T broadband solution with this product — that together, they work better,” Stankey said.”

DirecTV Now will square off in the market against other internet-delivered live TV packages, including Dish’s Sling TV and Sony’s PlayStation Vue. Hulu also is preparing to launch a live TV service in early 2017, while Google has plans to introduce a YouTube-branded skinny bundle next year.

There are some shortcomings with DirecTV Now, compared with full-blown traditional pay TV. First, it’s limited to two concurrent streams per account. It also doesn’t include DVR features, but Stankey said those are slated to be introduced in 2017 while the service at launch includes a 72-hour “catch up” feature providing on-demand access to recently aired programs for most networks.

The service also is launching without programming from CBS or Showtime, although Stankey downplayed the absence of CBS, saying it wasn’t a stumbling block in attracting the target demo for DirecTV Now. Local TV channels will be available for ABC, NBC and Fox in the broadcasters’ owned-and-operated markets, while DirecTV Now will provide primetime shows from them on VOD day-after-air in other areas.

The DirecTV Now entry-level 60-plus channel bundle ($35 monthly) includes ABC, NBC and Fox programming, plus ESPN, Fox News Channel, CNN, Nickelodeon, MSNBC, CNBC, Disney Channel, TNT, TBS, USA, HGTV, AMC, FX, A&E, Comedy Central, MTV, Discovery, Fox Sports 1, Univision and Syfy. The next tier up ($50 per month) adds channels including NBCSN, ESPNews, MLB Network, Cooking Channel, Fusion, IFC, The Weather Channel and GSN. The 100-plus tier (normally $60) includes all those plus channels including Golf, NBA TV, DIY Network, NatGeo Wild and Tennis Channel. The $70 top tier (with 120-plus channels) includes eight Starz Encore channels, as well as Boomerang, Univision Deportes and El Rey Network.

Aiming to differentiate the service from conventional pay TV, AT&T is playing up exclusive content available on DirecTV Now.

On DirecTV Now, the Taylor Swift Now channel will be devoted to the videos, concert performances, behind-the-scenes footage, and more from Swift’s archives. It will be included with all of the DirecTV Now services, and will be launching in the next few weeks, AT&T said. The telco in October signed a multiyear promotional pact with Swift, under which she’ll perform at DirecTV’s Super Bowl 51 event next February.

Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine venture is set to launch as a VOD channel on DirecTV Now by the middle of next year. It’s an expansion of the content deal that Witherspoon already had in place with Otter Media, the joint venture of Peter Chernin’s Chernin Group and AT&T. The channel’s content will focus on female-centric programs, including acquired movies and series, and will serve up an original series featuring Witherspoon.

“As we continue the journey of creating engaging entertainment for and about women at Hello Sunshine, it’s exciting to have a partner in AT&T who shares that commitment with us,” Witherspoon said.

DirecTV Now will also offer the subscription VOD service from Fullscreen Media, which AT&T owns with Chernin Group. Normally $5.99 per month, Fullscreen SVOD — which offers 1,500 hours of original and licensed programming — will be free for one year to AT&T wireless customers through DirecTV Now.

At launch, DirecTV Now will be available on Apple TV, iPhones, iPads, Amazon Fire TV and Fire TV Stick, Android mobile devices and tablets iPhone, Chromecast (Android at launch; iOS in 2017), Google Cast-enabled LeEco ecotvs and Vizio SmartCast Displays, and Internet Explorer, Chrome and Safari web browsers.

In 2017, AT&T said, it will add more devices to the DirecTV Now lineup including Roku players and TVs, Amazon Fire tablets, and connected TVs from Samsung and other manufacturers.

As previously reported by Variety, AT&T is offering customers a free Apple TV with three months prepaid of any DirecTV Now package, or an Amazon Fire TV Stick with one month prepaid. In addition, LeEco is offering DirecTV Now service with the purchase of smartphones and TVs (ranging from three to 12 months free), and Lenovo is offering one month free with the purchase of laptops with Intel Core i3, i5 or i7 processors.

At launch, DirecTV Now will offer nearly 15,000 titles on VOD, with more content to be added in the coming weeks, according to AT&T.

Along with the subscription OTT packages, AT&T is launching an ad-supported service called FreeView, which will include a sampling of on-demand content from the AT&T-DirecTV Audience Network, Fullscreen and other Otter Media properties, and other channels on DirecTV Now.

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