AT&T Names Media Boss John Stankey as CEO Heir Apparent

AT&T Names Media Boss John Stankey as CEO Heir Apparent


AT&T
Inc.


T0.18%

promoted longtime executive

John Stankey

to a newly created No. 2 role, setting up the WarnerMedia boss as the likely successor to Chief Executive

Randall Stephenson.

Mr. Stankey, 56 years old, will serve as president and chief operating officer starting next month. He will continue to serve as the head of WarnerMedia, the unit that houses HBO, the Warner Bros. studio and cable channels like CNN.

He will report to Mr. Stephenson and is the front-runner to take over the top job, according to people familiar with the matter. Mr. Stankey joined one of AT&T’s predecessors in 1985 and spent most of his career in the telecommunications business.

Mr. Stephenson, 59 years old, hasn’t indicated when he plans to retire, though he has been CEO for 12 years and there are discussions for and against his retirement at the board level, according to people familiar with the matter. Mr. Stephenson has reshaped AT&T during his tenure, piling on tens of billions of dollars in debt to turn the Dallas company into one of the world’s biggest media producers.

The promotion comes after Mr. Stankey’s main rival for the No. 2 job, AT&T Communications chief

John Donovan,

said last week that he would retire on Oct. 1. The 58-year-old executive decided to step down when it became clear he wasn’t in line to become chief operating officer under the new regime, people familiar with the matter said.

The company on Tuesday promoted

Jeff McElfresh,

48, the telecom division’s head of technology and operations, to replace Mr. Donovan. He will oversee the company’s core wireless and telephone businesses, as well as DirecTV, its satellite TV service. Mr. McElfresh will report to Mr. Stankey, as will the WarnerMedia unit and

Brian Lesser,

CEO of Xandr, the company’s digital advertising business.

Mr. Stankey became a media executive after AT&T acquired Time Warner, the result of a protracted antitrust battle started by Justice Department authorities who said the merger would hurt competition. He has replaced most of the Time Warner leadership team and brought in new executives including former NBCUniversal boss

Robert Greenblatt.

Mr. Stankey will take on more responsibilities during a pivotal time for WarnerMedia, which plans to launch an early version ofa new streaming brandcalled HBO Max in October. The online video service will carry films and TV shows and will eventually serve live events like sports.

AT&T moved beyond its telephone roots in 2015 when it bought DirecTV, turning the company into the nation’s biggest pay-TV provider. The company doubled down on the media business in 2018 when it spent more than $80 billion to acquire Time Warner.

That business, renamed WarnerMedia, has featured the kind of boom-and-bust performance familiar to most media companies. DirecTV has lost millions of customers as high prices and streaming options like

Netflix
Inc.

convince subscribers to cut the pay-TV cord.

As it explored CEO succession, AT&T discussed combining the DirecTV and WarnerMedia businesses, separating them from the traditional telecom business, said one person familiar with the matter. It isn’t known whether that will happen now that Mr. Stankey has been promoted, another person said. The wireless and telecom businesses still account for most of the company’s revenue.

—Shalini Ramachandran contributed to this article.

Write toDrew FitzGerald at[email protected]

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