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Twelve years ago, Netflix started offering movies streamed over the Internet. It was a herky-jerky, frustrating experience, and it took a visionary (Reed Hastings) to see what streaming would do to the movie business and its then-cash cow, the DVD.
Fast forward to today and streaming video is easily the most exciting consumer technology offering going. The list of players and soon-to-be players joining Netflix is long: Disney, Hulu (which Disney controls), Amazon, Apple, Comcast, and WarnerMedia, now owned by AT&T.
Of that list, AT&T is the only company with initials for a name and also a corporate handle most likely to induce a yawn. For anyone with any memory of business history, AT&T is Ma Bell, the phone company, the most famous U.S. monopoly after Standard Oil to be broken up, and the standard-bearer for consistency and, long ago, innovation.
As Fortune‘s prolific Geoff Colvin explains in his new feature on AT&T, the company under CEO Randall Stephenson is trying to do something few companies have ever done. It is combining powerful media brands (Warner, HBO, CNN) and distribution (DirecTV, phone lines, mobile phone lines) to form one giant digital conglomerate. Comcast, with its ownership of NBCUniversal and tens of millions of cable and Internet (and, now, also wireless phone) customers, may be its only peer.
AT&T had to do something. Its main business wasn’t growing. But by acquiring an entertainment and distribution colossus, AT&T also has taken on a pile of debt. And to succeed it will need for its streaming service to be one of the few that consumers choose.
Like the plot line in HBO’s just concluded Game of Thrones, it will be an epic battle.
Today in Fortune conferences (as my friend Dan Primack might say): Artificial intelligence is the inescapable topic in business today. It stands to reason, then, that we’re holding a new event called Brainstorm A.I. in Boston, Sept. 23-24, to discuss it. The goal of this conference is twofold: Explain through top experts in the field this paradigm-shifting technology and explore the stories of how various companies are implementing it. The agenda is just getting going, so write me if you’d like to participate. And by all means subscribe to our new weekly Eye on A.I. newsletter, too. The latest issue comes out later today.