AT&T promotes WarnerMedia boss John Stankey

AT&T announced two promotions on Tuesday that place John Stankey, the CEO of its subsidiary WarnerMedia, firmly in line to succeed the wireless giant’s CEO, Randall Stephenson.

Stephenson, who has led AT&T since 2007, is installing Stankey as president and chief operating officer of the entire company. The communications and advertising units will now report to Stankey.

At the same time, Stankey will remain the head of WarnerMedia, the entertainment and news unit that includes CNN.

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Stephenson “hasn’t indicated plans to step down from the helm of the company any time soon.” But Monday’s appointment still cleared up the succession questions that always intrigue investors and Wall Street analysts. And Stephenson and AT&T’s board are clearly expressing confidence in Stankey.

Stankey, 56, who has worked at AT&T for more than three decades, was already seen as a likely contender to take over for Stephenson, 59. Another contender was John Donovan, the head of the AT&T Communications unit, but Donovan announced his retirement last week.

Jeff McElfresh will take over the sprawling wireless unit on October 1.

While Donovan previously reported to Stephenson, McElfresh will report to Stankey in this new arrangement. So will Brian Lesser, the head of Xandr, AT&T’s advanced advertising unit.

Stephenson continues to have several other direct reports, including the executives in charge of human resources, marketing, and legal affairs.

In a statement, Stephenson called Stankey “an outstanding executive who has led nearly every area of our business, helped shape our strategy and excelled at operations throughout his career.”

He said the changes are a “natural next step in bringing together the distinct and complimentary capabilities of AT&T Communications, WarnerMedia and Xandr to deliver for consumers the benefits of a modern media company.”

Stankey officially took the reins at WarnerMedia in the summer of 2018, when AT&T’s purchase of the company formerly known as Time Warner took effect. Since then, Stankey has restructured the company and sought to break down the silos that existed between HBO, the Warner Bros. studio and cable channels like CNN.

Warner’s top priority is the launch of a subscription streaming service called HBO Max. It is set to launch next spring.

AT&T said that Stankey’s leadership team at WarnerMedia will continue to report to him.

In a recent interview with Variety, Stankey praised the storytellers who produce the shows and films WarnerMedia is best known for, but also noted the difficult task he and the company face in carrying out AT&T’s plans for that content.

“I do not lose sleep at night worrying about our creative direction around here,” he said. “Our challenge will be getting that great creative strength and marrying it with great technology and the ability to manage customer life cycles. If we can get that three-legged stool working, then we’re unstoppable.”