Steve Burke: People Starting To Realize There’s Too Much TV

The head of NBCUniversal seems to agree with the view that FX’s John Landgraf recently voiced that the explosion of scripted shows across cable and digital services led by Netflix has produced a glut.

In a wide-ranging conversation at the Bank of America Merrill Lynch Media, Communications & Entertainment Conference today, Steve Burke said that there’s “an almost insatiable demand for great programming.” Even so, “my bet is that the sheer volume will not continue to increase at the pace it has. People are starting to realize there’s too much here.”

While cable programming is still “a good business,” he adds that revenues are “not going to grow 8%, 9%, or 10% a year in the near future.” It can still grow by low single digit percentages each year, though, as increases in affiliate fees and overseas revenues make up for declines in advertising.

That’s why he believes investors became too frightened last month when Disney reduced some financial forecasts after acknowledging that it had lost some subscribers at ESPN. That fueled fears of cord cutting, and led to a widespread sell-off in media company stocks.

“Nothing different has happened in the last month that wasn’t happening a year ago or three years ago,” Burke says. “The good news is people are watching more video than ever before, they’re just watching in places that often aren’t rated, and aren’t monetized.”

But “when $50 billion in market [value for media companies] flies out the window in a week, it’s an overreaction….They will just have lower growth rates than they’ve had.”

Burke plans to invest more in international businesses. He’s also upbeat about sports, including his company’s agreement to carry the Olympics through 2032. “Sports ratings have not declined, and we don’t think they will decline,” he says.

The NBCU CEO acknowledged that the recent upfront ad sales market “was not strong.” That was more due to advertisers waiting to see how opportunities would shape up, and less because they’re moving dollars to digital platforms.

“Advertisers that did jump [into the upfront market]are feeling smart,” he says. “The advertising market now is very good.”

On other fronts, Burke applauded Universal Studios — which is having a record-breaking year with hits including Jurassic World and Minions.

“A lot of it is good fortune,” he says. “But a fair amount of it is due to changes we made over the last four or five years.” For example, he credits Comcast’s Project Symphony — which requires different units of the company to support important initiatives. About 20% of viewers at any time watch one of NBCU’s TV channels, so Universal benefited from promotions across the networks. “We’re doing road blocks, going wall to wall, having dinosaurs run across tickers on Squawk Box.”

Many other companies “don’t foster that culture. People in the movie division hate the people in the cable group…Ultimately you work for NBCUniversal, not Bravo or Syfy.”

With those changes, and others including a beefed up presence in China, “our prospects look materially better in the movie business. Although it’s “a cyclical business,” Universal will be “flying at a much higher altitude.”

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