Fortune

AT&T’S HEAVY LIFT

Bellhead Randall Stephenson has assembled a media empire. Now comes the hard part.
ON THE THRONE: CEO Randall Stephenson spent more than $170 billion building a content and distribution colossus.

500 RANK

9

AT&T

REVENUES

$170.8 BILLION

PROFITS

$19.4 BILLION

EMPLOYEES

268,220

TOTAL RETURN TO SHAREHOLDERS (2008–2018 ANNUAL RATE)

5.7%

AT&T WAS NOT ACTUALLY ACQUIRED by a company called Game of Thrones Corp. earlier this year, though consumers could be forgiven for wondering. AT&T cell phone stores across the land seemed to have been taken over by a vaguely medieval industrial behemoth that had filled them with the heraldry of House Lannister, House Stark, and other Westerosi factions, plus costumes, weapons, and GOT-emblazoned smartphone cases, wireless chargers, and water bottles. Viewers of March Madness on AT&T-owned TBS saw slightly weird GOT-themed promos for the college basketball tournament and GOT-themed tweets (“Send a raven—they’re on to the #Elite8. #MarchMadness”). Another sign of GOT ’s ascendance: The Iron Throne itself—or rather, a seven-foot-high, 310-pound replica of it—sits prominently in the lobby of AT&T headquarters in Dallas.

AT&T chief Randall Stephenson walks past that throne every day, but he doesn’t think much about the Lord of the Seven Kingdoms. In his world, Game of Thrones symbolizes something else: the first faint glimmers of how his costly vision for AT&T will work. Using company properties to publicize the show’s final-season premiere on AT&T-owned HBO is a minor example of the synergies he foresees; AT&T wireless customers with top-tier plans can also get HBO for free, for example. That’s a result of another titanic battle, the end in February of AT&T’s fight with the U.S. Department of Justice to win legal clearance to fully integrate operations with the Time Warner A-list media properties AT&T had agreed to buy more than two years earlier: most prominently, HBO, Warner Bros., CNN, TBS, and TNT.

Stephenson’s strategy is breathtaking in scale and scope, the largest transformation underway at any company in the Fortune 500. AT&T’s main traditional competitor, Verizon, has chosen an entirely different path, and Stephenson’s new rivals are in markedly different businesses. Back when AT&T was Ma Bell, after all, it was proudly staid, reliable, and boring. Stephenson marvels, “I spend as much time thinking about Amazon and Netflix as I do thinking about Verizon and Comcast now.”

Stephenson also must think about the phone business, though, because it

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