That’s what some analysts say this morning about the dispute that has left 20M satellite customers without Viacom‘s 17 channels. DirecTV’s payments to Viacom — at an estimated $2.25 per subscriber each month — amount to about $550M a year for the networks company, or 14% of its revenue, Credit Suisse’s Spencer Wang figures. But even though Viacom says it’s the most popular programmer on DirecTV, Wang observes that it lacks the bargaining clout its peers enjoy. Viacom doesn’t have a broadcast network and stations — assets that strengthen Fox, Disney, and NBCUniversal‘s hands in re-transmission consent negotiations. Viacom also doesn’t have a popular sports network, also typically considered a must-have service. Indeed, another Credit Suisse analyst, Stefan Anninger, is rooting for DirecTV to hold out. “The end result of networks driving higher fees for channels, which distributors, in turn, pass along a portion of to their subs, could be a shrinking pay TV pie, particularly as online video alternatives grow,” he says. Even if DirecTV loses some subscribers “we hope that [DirecTV’s] willingness to ‘just say no,’ is contagious.”
But Nomura Securities’ Michael Nathanson says that Viacom has to dig in its heels. If it can’t add 60 cents to the $2.25 monthly per sub fee from DirecTV, then it might have to lower prices for other pay TV providers who have Most Favored Nation agreements which guarantee that they pay the lowest rates. If Viacom succeeds in getting DirecTV to increase its payments by 10.5%, then it could add 12 cents to Viacom’s earnings per share in the 2013 fiscal year. That would be “enough to offset any potential risk to a slowdown in advertising next year” related to the ratings weakness at Nickelodeon and MTV. He’s optimistic that Viacom will win a big increase for 2013, and then rate increases of “at least high single digits” a year for the remainder of its deal.
No matter who wins this battle, Janney Capital Markets’ Tony Wible says both companies could lose the war to keep the current system intact. If cable and satellite prices continue to rise faster than inflation, then lots of subscribers may decide to cut the pay TV cord and rely on less expensive video sources — including over-the-air TV and Internet services such as Netflix. “Can [Viacom] afford to lose [DirecTV] at a time where ad revenue numbers are under pressure?” he asks. If people ditch traditional pay TV then it would hurt “all sources of network revenue.”
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