The media landscape looks different today. Charter’s new agreement to pay $56 billion in cash and stock for Time Warner Cable, plus $10.4 billion for Bright House Networks, puts a high price tag on cable systems. And if the deal passes muster with regulatory officials, then Charter will become the No. 2 cable company with 23.9 million customers, close behind Comcast.
What does this mean? The frank answer is: nobody knows. Media mega-mergers rarely play out the way the people who make them envision.
But everyone has a view about the winners (including Liberty Media’s John Malone) and losers (sorry, Dodger fans). Here are some of the thoughts kicking around the executive suites of some of the industry’s biggest players.
Time Warner Cable: A little more than a year ago the No. 2 cable company looked like it might be picked up for a song. Charter made a hostile offer of $132.50 a share, which TWC called “grossly inadequate.” It was so desperate for a higher price that it accepted an all-stock offer from Comcast then valued at $158.82, with no break-up fee. That evaporated last month when Comcast — facing resistance by government regulators — backed away. Yet TWC found it still had bargaining power when Luxembourg-based Altice Group said it was interested. In the end, Charter made cash and stock offers worth close to $200 per share — with a $2 billion break-up fee. Today TWC shares touched a new all time high of $184.89.
Liberty Media’s John Malone: It feels like we’re back in the 1980s: The same weekend that movie theaters featured a remake of Poltergeist, Malone’s back (or, as the horror movie might put it, “baaaaack”) gobbling up cable systems. With his super voting shares, he has 25% of Charter’s votes which pretty much gives him control. And he paid relatively little: $2.6 billion for his original stake. He’ll invest an additional $5 billion in some of the new shares Charter will issue, although he’ll end up being diluted down to 19%. But no matter: The deal gives Malone a proxy to vote part of Advance/Newhouse’s shares equal to 7% of Charter — bringing him back to about 26%. Does he have a game plan? That’s not clear. But he’s back in the game.
Charter CEO Tom Rutledge: Less than four years ago he was COO of Cablevision. Now he’s poised to become a major power broker, able to make or break channels and technologies across much of the country including big cities such as New York and Los Angeles. Today’s deal comes with a five-year contract that would make him Chairman as well as CEO. And it usually pays to be one of Malone’s CEOs: Last year David Zaslav’s new contract at Discovery — which Malone controls — was worth $156 million to him, Liberty Global CEO Michael Fries made $112.2 million, and Liberty CEO Greg Maffei realized $41.4 million. There’s a lot of headroom for Rutledge, who made $16.1 million last year.
LionTree Advisors: Aryeh Bourkoff’s boutique banking firm is red hot. It was Charter’s co-lead financial advisor, with Goldman Sachs, on today’s deal. It also was in on Altice’s purchase of Suddenlink, and Verizon’s purchase of AOL. That amounts to more than $100 billion in transaction volume over just two weeks.
FCC: Charter’s deal weakens the main argument raised by opponents of the agency’s decision to reclassify broadband as a regulated communications utility — part of its effort to enforce tough new net neutrality rules. Cable and phone companies warned that the vote would chill investment in broadband. But Charter managed to raise the funds it needed. And Rutledge says he’ll “accelerate the deployment of faster Internet speeds [and] state-of-the-art video experiences” as well as public Wi-Fi and fiber optic lines to serve small and medium sized businesses.
L.A. Dodgers fans: There’s a little good news for them. Charter will pick up TWC’s SportsNet L.A., giving about 300,000 Southern California subscribers access to the team’s games, CEO Tom Rutledge told the Los Angeles Times. But for now TWC has little incentive to back down from the steep $4.90 monthly per-subscriber price it wants cable and satellite companies to pay. That has kept others including DirecTV, Dish Network,Cox, Verizon FiOS, and AT&T U-verse off the field. Charter doesn’t see its acquisition of TWC closing until late 2015. For most Dodgers fans, the message is still: Wait till next year.
Altice Group: Billionaire Patrick Drahi’s dream of becoming a U.S. cable mogul appears to have been dashed by the Charter-TWC merger plan. It’s hard to imagine what systems he might pick up to build on the territories he agreed to buy last week in a pact for 70% of Suddenlink, valued at $9.1 billion.
Cablevision: Wall Street would disagree with this assessment. Cablevision shares today touched a new high of $26.50, and are up nearly 24% over the last week. Many see the Long Island-based operator — which dominates the suburbs around New York City — as a likely player in today’s cable merger mania. But with whom? Comcast is still licking its wounds after scuttling the TWC deal. Charter has its hands full and, with TWC, would control the New York area’s biggest prize: Manhattan. Meanwhile, Cablevision continues to wrestle with Verizon’s FiOS and AT&T, which is preparing to acquire DirecTV.
Charter: It’s taking on a ton of debt to pick up TWC. That may pay off if cable companies continue to be the nation’s primary providers of TV and broadband services. But consider: Distributors are at war with programmers. Sports costs are soaring. Netflix and other streaming video providers promote cord cutting. And telcos are threatening to become major competitors with their wireless broadband services. Charter’s making a huge bet. Do you think it will pay off?