Media Stocks Melt Down, Especially Dish And Other TV Bundle Staples

While the major stock market indices recovered early losses amid jitters over the U.S. pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, media companies had a rough trading day, especially those with exposure to the traditional pay-TV bundle.

Dish Network was by far the biggest laggard. Its shares tanked 12% to end at $29.81, after the company announced first-quarter results that fell short of Wall Street estimates and rang cord-cutting alarms. The satellite TV company said its flagship pay-TV service lost 94,000 subscribers, while its internet-delivered Sling TV service gained 91,000.

The hangover extended into cable operators, programmers and broadcasters. Disney, which released strong quarterly earnings after the bell, drifted down only a fraction during the trading day. AT&T and Verizon each shed a percentage point but avoided the worst of it.

Charter, the No. 2 U.S. cable operator, fell 2.6% to $271.01. Altice USA went down nearly 3% to $16.43. Comcast dropped 5.6% to $30.59, though investors were weighing not only the company’s exposure to the TV bundle but also its plan to raise funds for a $60 billion unsolicited offer for 21st Century Fox assets.

Other companies suffering noteworthy dings included Sinclair Broadcast Group and Viacom, both off 3%, and CBS, down 2%.

Craig Moffett, an analyst with MoffettNathanson, sent a research note about the Dish results that flagged inauspicious subscriber trends and a problematic expense profile. In the report, titled “Something’s Gotta Give,” he conceded his firm’s principals have been “the biggest bears on the Street” regarding Dish, but said the rationale for their pessimism has changed.

Until about a year ago, Moffett wrote, the numbers at the top of the quarterly earnings reports were the key, “indicating losses of subscribers and revenue.” Now, “the most important numbers are on the bottom,” with high fixed costs squeezing margins and free cash flow. Gains at Sling are a modest plus, Moffett added, but the skinny-bundle service is seeing growth slow down, and all virtual MVPDs are experiencing greater churn than their older sibling pay-TV options. “The fortunes of Dish Network’s pay-TV business rest with its satellite segment, not with Sling TV,” Moffett wrote.

On Dish’s conference call with Wall Street analysts to discuss quarterly results, Chairman Charlie Ergen affirmed the company’s commitment to repaying its $16 billion in debt.

He was less upbeat about another pressing issue: Dish’s struggle to pivot to wireless. It has amassed a considerable amount of spectrum that could be used for a wireless network, but the company must meet a 2020 deadline and also says it needs a partner to power the build-out.

“We have said all along that we think we need strategic partnerships to achieve our goals,” Ergen said. “We won’t be successful as a lone wolf out there. We’re not that good.”

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