This won’t go over well with the media moguls hobnobbing at the Allen & Co retreat in Sun Valley. But it’s the thesis behind the “neutral” rating that Barclays Capital’s Kannan Venkateshwar assigns to Big Media in his smart new 100-plus-page inaugural report on the industry. The major players — CBS, Discovery, Time Warner, Fox, Viacom, and Disney — make most of their profits from television. And although revenues in the field have grown over the last five years, “the source of this growth in most cases (with a few notable exceptions) has been through price inflation and an increase in the advertising inventory rather than a more sustainable growth in ratings,” he says. That spells trouble as Netflix, Amazon and others also produce content for the Web, and pay TV distributors including Comcast and DirecTV strike merger deals that make them stronger. They focus on shows and search engines — not networks and schedules. And as they forge stronger ties with subscribers, “traditional media companies get pushed further back into the value chain, further away from a direct relationship with the consumer.”
Can mergers help content creators maintain the upper hand? Not if they combine with each other, Venkateshwar says. He recognizes that “some content providers over the longer term will likely have to consolidate to get the scale advantage vis a vis the distributors” when they negotiate fees. But many production costs are fixed; big companies don’t pay substantially less than small ones do to produce shows. The best remedy, the analyst says, is for content creators to sell out to distributors so both sides can benefit from the growth of video on demand.
As for specific recommendations: Venkateshwar effectively urges investors to buy Fox and Discovery, which he says can benefit from their properties in growing markets overseas. He’s neutral on Time Warner, CBS, and Disney. And he assigns an “underweight” rating to Viacom. Its young TV viewers are moving fastest to digital platforms. And after committing so much of its free cash to stock buybacks, it has “limited flexibility…to invest in the core business.”