UPDATE, WEDNESDAY AM: Suddenlink asked for a clarification to its CEO’s statement to us yesterday that Viacom was “dead last” in the company’s analysis of viewers per dollar the cable company pays for programming. That’s true after you factor out companies that own major broadcast networks.
PREVIOUS, TUESDAY AM: Viacom has a lot at stake in this discussion. Some analysts fear that the programming giant will be singled out for punishment if large distributors believe that the cost savings from dropping channels including MTV, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central and BET outweigh the potential losses from subscriber defections.
Yet that’s exactly the case that Suddenlink CEO Jerry Kent made today. He told investors at his privately held company that they and their 1.14 million video subscribers suffered little since the end of September when he dropped Viacom in a contract impasse.
“We took a stand on runaway programming costs and rejected the notion that content providers are entitled to unjustified cost increases,” he says, “Viacom attempted to impose such cost increases for content that has suffered significant ratings declines. We said no and the results since then show that it was the right decision.”
The proof? “We retained 99.7% of customer relationships in the fourth quarter” although video subscriptions fell by 34,800 and digital video dropped 26,300.
Why Wall Street Remains Wary About Viacom
Viacom declined to respond. Its shares held steady today after Kent’s comments. CEO Philippe Dauman told analysts last month that Viacom’s distribution relationships “are strong with most extending well into the future and the ranks of new entrants are increasing rapidly. Viacom’s global footprint is broad and growing. Viacom is leading the rapid evolution to new measurement and monetization models that will unlock significant value for us in particular.”
Still, some analysts believe that Viacom is vulnerable, in part because it does not make big investments in sports, and some of its most popular shows — including SpongeBob Square Pants and The Daily Show With Jon Stewart — are easy to find online. Citi Research’s Jason Bazinet said in January that he sees a 50% chance Dish Network will drop Viacom when their contract expires. (Yesterday Dish Chairman Charlie Ergen called Viacom “one of our better relationships” adding that “as long as we are treated fair” he’s “hopeful” that it will continue “for long time.”)
Kent tells me that he gave up on Viacom after the company sought a close to 50% price increase over four and a half years, heavily weighted upfront. Suddenlink also compared the number of viewers Viacom channels attract for each dollar the cable operator pays for the programming. “Viacom was dead last,” the CEO says.
When it dropped Viacom, Suddenlink waived early cancellation fees that might have applied to a few thousand of its customers in North Carolina. But after an early wave of defections, “each month has performed progressively better, and from the trends we seen so far in 2015 our momentum is comparable to first-quarter results from previous years,” Kent says. “At this point I’d say we’re pretty close to business as usual.”
Suddenlink generated $7.42 million in net income in Q4, +40.9% vs the same period in 2013, on revenues of $592.1 million, +5.6%. The video operation’s revenues declined 1.2% to $284.7 million.
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