A word of warning to pay TV programmers: You should be worried about Altice’s $10 billion deal to buy Cablevision. Maybe even more so than you are about Charter’s $55 billion plan to buy Time Warner Cable, or AT&T’s recent $48.5 billion acquisition of DirecTV.
French billionaire Patrick Drahi, who runs Altice, has every incentive to fight hard when networks make their regular requests for price increases — and drop channels that demand too much.
He’s already famously tight with a dollar, which he acknowledged today at the Goldman Sachs Communacopia conference when talking about the opportunity to cut costs at Cablevision. Observing that the company run by the family of CEO James Dolan has “many layers” of well-paid execs, he noted,”I pay as little as I can.”
His checkbook’s still open for deals, though. He told the investor group that Altice is still “too small” and wants to “buy more cable systems before we go to mobile.”
That’s a fine idea, but how much debt can he assume? Altice says it expects to take on about $8.6 billion of incremental debt to finance the deal for Cablevision — which already has about $7.7 billion. That’s on top of the $6.8 billion of new and existing debt Altice agreed to take on to buy Suddenlink, a deal announced in May.
Today Moody’s Investors Service put Cablevision’s debt in review for a possible rating downgrade due in part to “the high leverage incurred to finance the acquisition.”
Altice told analysts that it can make the numbers work for Cablevision by finding about $1 billion a year in savings and synergies. Consider, though: That’s more than the $800 million Charter assumes it can find at Time Warner Cable, a much bigger company.
Count MoffettNathanson Research’s Craig Moffett among the analysts who doubt that Altice’s effort will work. The target “implies that Altice can cut 30% (yes, 30%) out of Cablevision’s non-programming costs,” he says.
It’s hard to imagine how it can do that without diminishing customer service. And Cablevision can’t afford to anger subscribers: It faces tough competition from Verizon FiOS which, Moffett says, “markets a product that many (most?) would argue is superior and sells for a lower price.”
Cablevision’s already feeling the pain. Data the analyst found from the U.S. Copyright Office shows that the operator’s video customer losses in the Bronx are up to almost 6% per year, and about 8% per year in Brooklyn.
What can Drahi do? He can try to cut — or at least slow the growth in– one of cable’s biggest expenses: programming costs.
It wouldn’t require big changes in strategy. Remember that Suddenlink is one of the small operators that dropped Viacom’s channels and then crowed that the decision improved the bottom line. Separately, Cablevision sued Viacom alleging that it bundles channels in a way that violates antitrust laws — a charge the entertainment giant rejects.
With the possible exception of Dish Network’s Charlie Ergen, few other pay TV distributors will be as well positioned as Altice to challenge rising programming costs.
Comcast is conflicted; it also owns NBCUniversal. Charter’s situation is complicated by the fact that its largest shareholder — Liberty Media’s John Malone — is eager to become more involved with programming. He showed that early this year when he engineered a stock swap deal that gave him a piece of Lionsgate, and a seat on its board. Meanwhile DirecTV is now owned by AT&T which wants to make nice with programmers to fuel its wireless video plans.
Altice doesn’t have similar conflicts of interests to keep it from taking on programmers. Even more important, from a network owner’s perspective: it may not have a choice.