We’ll all celebrate the new year on January 1. But the date when everybody seemed to turn the page on Big Media already took place unexpectedly on August 3.
That’s when investors stopped giving companies the benefit of the doubt that their TV networks, Hollywood’s main profit drivers, could manage their worrisome declines in ratings and ad sales — and especially early signs of cable and satellite TV cord-cutting.
It was a big change. Up to then Wall Street for the most part accepted moguls’ upbeat view that their troubles were insignificant and temporary.
“While the U.S. multi-channel household universe has been experiencing some subscriber losses, they haven’t been material and we don’t anticipate that they’re going to be material,” Turner Broadcasting CEO John Martin told analysts in April.
That optimism was reflected in the Dow Jones U.S. Media Index. It rose 7.8% between January and early August, handily outpacing the benchmark Standard & Poor’s 500 which was only up 1.7%.
But the mood changed on August 3 when Disney acknowledged that it would fall short of a financial forecast due to subscription declines at ESPN. It was a small miss. Yet industry watchers figured that if the mighty sports channel was vulnerable, then nobody was safe.
The reaction was breathtaking: Big Media companies lost about $80 billion in market value over the following month. And although many stocks recovered somewhat later on, all the giants except Disney and Comcast (Sony’s mostly a tech and hardware company) will end 2015 down by double-digit percentages.
The Dow Media Index was down about 3.7% for 2015 as of yesterday’s market close — worse than the S&P which is up about 1%. That’s a reversal from 2014 when the Media Index rose 11.3%, and 2013 when it was up 48.5%.
Moguls say that the Street overreacted. Cable companies may turn cord-cutting into just a manageable annoyance as subscribers grow to like TV Everywhere streaming, or VOD with dynamic ad insertion. Advertisers in a quadrennial year with the Olympics and a presidential election may fall in love with TV again. Networks say that they’ll offer better data about their audiences, and Nielsen is improving its ability to report how many people still watch traditional network shows on mobile devices.
But the conventional wisdom now holds that the industry’s golden goose — the bloated pay TV bundle that charges people for channels that they don’t watch — is about to be cooked. Cable, satellite and telco video subscriptions declined by 1.7% to about 98.3 million in the first nine months of 2015. The big question for 2016 is whether the pace of the decline will remain slow, or accelerate.
Potential cord cutters have many more, and more compelling, alternatives now than ever with streaming services including Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, HBO Now, YouTube Red, and WWE Network. Those who simply want to escape the high price of the pay TV bundle can scale back with Sling TV, PlayStation Vue and, soon, cable companies’ own low-priced skinny bundles that leave out some of the most expensive or least watched channels.
A drop in subscriptions wouldn’t just endanger the per-customer fees that networks collect. They also may have to get used to lower ad sales as buyers shift dollars to digital platforms including Facebook and YouTube offering lower prices and superior targeting. TV ad sales fell 3.6% in the first nine months of 2015, Kantar Media reports.
Traditional media companies have been able to overcome audience and ad challenges by raising prices on distributors — and, by extension, their customers. That game will be harder to play following AT&T’s recent purchase of DirecTV, and if Charter Communications succeeds in its effort to buy Time Warner Cable. If that happens, then the four biggest pay TV distributors will have 79% of all subscriptions, versus 67% in 2013.
They have every reason to use their muscle to fight network price increases either at the bargaining table, or by creating skinny bundles. Most of the big distributors now have more broadband customers than video ones, and believe that they can grow by expanding into mobile communications and entertainment.
“In one form or another, greater accountability is coming for the life or price of every channel,” AMC Networks CEO Josh Sapan said this month. “We’re getting into a world where you’re not rewarded for just showing up.”
If he’s right, then content providers had better brace themselves. They’ve benefited as networks and digital newcomers spent heavily on original programs hoping to build a fan base that will keep them viable without the security of the all-or-nothing bundle.
FX counted a record 365 scripted original shows on broadcast and cable TV this year, up 4.6% from last year — and +71.4% from 2010. It’s hard to justify those payments if ratings, subscriptions, and ad sales are falling.
With all that in mind, here are a few questions industry insiders ponder as they look to 2016:
What will happen to Viacom?
The company that owns MTV, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, BET and Paramount is ripe for change. With its young audience, Viacom’s the canary in the coal mine for media companies looking at the generational shift from traditional TV to digital media.
And the canary looked wobbly this year: Viacom’s share price fell 45% so far this year as investors lost faith in its ability to reverse ratings declines and five consecutive quarters of year-over-year drops in domestic ad sales.
On top of that, there’s widespread concern that Viacom either won’t be able to renew an expiring distribution deal with Dish Network, or will only be able to do so by agreeing to much lower than expected price increases for its channels.
It would be a blow to lose Dish’s 13.9 million subs. But the No. 2 satellite company has its own financial worries as its core business weakens. It might be intrigued by the experiences of small cable companies led by Suddenlink that ditched Viacom, and crowed that sub losses were so modest that it improved their bottom lines.
Just about every investment banker has a thought about how Viacom could change its storyline — for example by putting itself up for sale, or possibly just by unloading Paramount.
Don’t expect to see a strategic shift while Executive Chairman Sumner Redstone continues to control 80% of the voting shares at Viacom — and CBS.
That’s a whole other story that will play out in 2016: He’s 92. His health is declining. And his former girlfriends, daughter Shari, Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman, and CBS chief Les Moonves are jockeying for power when Redstone leaves the stage.
Is the bubble in TV sports pricing about to burst?
Sports provide some of the most important content on TV. Football and some other sports generate great ratings with viewers who watch live, and don’t skip through the ads. No wonder the cost of sports rights, and channels, has skyrocketed.
Yet distributors increasingly are saying “enough.”
Most cable and satellite providers serving Southern California believe they’re better off without the Los Angeles Dodgers than they would be if they paid the $5 per subscriber per month Time Warner Cable’s Sportsnet LA wants. CSN Houston — a Comcast joint venture with the Houston Astros and Rockets — went bankrupt in 2014 after other distributors balked at the $3.40 per sub per month it wanted. (It was bought by AT&T’s DirecTV and relaunched as Root Sports SW.)
Now Comcast, in a contract dispute, is doing without the YES Network, which carries the New York Yankees.
Even mighty ESPN — the highest-priced basic cable service with an average monthly rate of more than $6.60 per customer — looks vulnerable. Verizon’s FiOS created a so-called skinny bundle without ESPN. (Its parent, Disney, says that violates their programming contract, a charge the telco rejects.)
As non-sports fans cut or trim their pay TV outlays, ESPN could end 2016 with fewer than 90 million subscribers, down from 99 million two years ago and roughly putting it back to where it was in 2005. It lost 3.1 million subscribers in 2015, Nielsen estimates, versus a 2.1 million drop in 2014 and 1.6 million decline in 2013.
What will John Malone do?
The Liberty Media founder is an engineer who likes to play with structures. In his case it’s mostly corporate ones …especially when he can find ways to cut tax outlays. And he’s having a lot of fun now with content companies.
This year he made stock deals that brought Lionsgate into his constellation, a field that already includes Starz, Discovery, Live Nation, and SiriusXM — as well as Charter Communications, which could become the No. 2 cable company if it completes its deal to buy Time Warner Cable.
Malone openly talks about the possibility of Lionsgate buying Starz. It could use the studio’s hit movies and TV series: Disney’s distribution deal with Starz expires this week; its new movies will start to appear on Netflix. Meanwhile, HBO and Showtime are investing heavily in original programming, in part to help sell their new stand-alone streaming services.
But Malone likes to think big — he didn’t make the effort to join Lionsgate’s board just to sell Starz. Would he buy Lionsgate? While you can never rule anything out, that wouldn’t be his style. He’s a value investor, and never liked betting on Hollywood.
Malone knows, though, that mobile is media’s next frontier. He’d like the cable industry to claim a stake. Having a strong content-creating ally might help him to prod players into line — for example spurring them to line up around a strategy, set of standards, and even specific services.
He believes that cable’s pokey development of TV Everywhere left the streaming video field wide open for Netflix.
Malone also recognizes that studio and network owners are vulnerable as far bigger powers in tech and telecom move into their world. For example, Apple and Alphabet (formerly Google) have about three times the market value of Disney, the biggest Big Media company.
Will Netflix stumble?
The streaming video power was barely profitable in the first three quarters of 2015 as it spent heavily on content and overseas expansion. But Wall Street didn’t mind. Investors believe that Netflix is becoming a must-have service in the new digital video ecosystem. That story emboldened them to bid up its shares by 144% to an astronomical 317 times its trailing earnings.
But the stock price could fall quickly if the story becomes less believable in 2016.
That could happen.
Amazon, Hulu, HBO Now, YouTube, Sling TV, Sony’s PlayStation Vue and other video providers positioned themselves in 2015 to challenge Neflix. So did Comcast and other cable companies that are beefing up their TV Everywhere and video on demand offerings. Apple seems to have lost its enthusiasm for creating a live TV service, but can’t be counted out.
Research and consulting firm PWC says that its annual online survey of 1,200 U.S. TV watchers found that 65.1% subscribed to Netflix in 2015, virtually flat with 2014, while Amazon Prime was up 2.4 percentage points to 34.2%, and Hulu gained 5 percentage points to 16.3%.
Now some content providers — including Time Warner, Fox, and Discovery — say that they are having second thoughts about selling popular shows to Netflix.
An intriguing new analysis by Needham & Co analyst Laura Martin explains why they should pull back from a service that lures viewers away from traditional pay TV: She calculates that Netflix pays content owners about 18 cents for each hour each subscriber watches, while linear channels pay 25 cents. Producers could be hurt even more if Netflix encourages people to watch shows without ads.
Even so, Netflix still has a lot of fans on Wall Street. Cord cutting is just beginning, they say. The company’s overseas ventures are just getting started. Netflix has had a lot of success with its programming choices and is about to raise its content outlays by more than 50% to $5 billion — which will include Disney movies released after January 1.
Will the FCC clear the way for consumers to buy their own cable boxes?
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has hinted that he’s ready to champion this. If he does, then it’s a big deal — and he’s in for a fight.
Cable companies collect nearly $20 billion a year from the boxes they rent to unencrypt signals. They’ve relentlessly guarded this system. Among other things, forcing customers to use their set-top boxes makes it hard for others to establish a relationship with cable customers. Most subscribers who want to access Netflix, Amazon Prime or Hulu must switch to a different input on their TV sets.
Consumer groups and electronics companies, including Google and TiVo, want the FCC to establish standards for downloadable security processes. That would open the way for independent manufacturers to sell boxes with state-of-the-art features that also enable cable customers to also use someone else’s programming grid or video services. It would be as easy to switch to Netflix as it is to flip on HBO or Showtime.
Cable operators counter that a change would be burdensome, make it hard for them to innovate, and easy for TV to be pirated. The MPAA also warns that third parties “could potentially disassemble the programming, features, and functions offered over distribution services and selectively reassemble some of them for their own commercial exploitation” — possibly violating licensing agreements.
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