New Fox Shift To Live TV Could Mean “Nuclear Option” For Local Stations: Analyst

21st Century Fox

As New Fox moves its flagship broadcast network toward a programming lineup dominated by live sports, one analyst wonders if it could come to view the traditional relationship between the network and its local affiliates as expendable.

“I’m concerned that the move by Fox to go toward more of a national sports play, at some point does the network just say, ‘You know what? We realize the value of local is local but we’ll fill that in in the rest of the country with a national feed. We’re going to go with the nuclear option,'” said analyst Michael Nathanson at the TVB Forward conference.

Fox is changing its programming stripes in anticipation of selling most of the company to Disney, except for the broadcast networks and stations, plus Fox News and FS1.

Nathanson’s comments were something akin to what a fox would say in the henhouse. He was appearing on a Wall Street panel during the annual conference, which is sponsored by the local TV industry’s non-profit trade association. Two other panelists, Marci Ryvicker, who spent 16 years at Wells Fargo until leaving in August, and Alexia Quadrani of J.P. Morgan, also expressed concern about the effects of cord-cutting, viewership declines for local TV and the chance of a recession.

Tom Carter, EVP and CFO of Nexstar Media Group and Victoria Harker, EVP and CFO of Tegna, also on the panel, pushed back, not surprisingly. “The business model is underappreciated,” Carter said. Without “machines that grind against each other or printing presses or any of that,” he said, station groups have low capital expenditures and throw off a lot of free cash flow. “One question I never have to face is, ‘What’s your rate of cash burn?'” he said, something tech companies routinely have to answer.

NFL rights will be a major tipping point for local TV, panelists agreed. While Carter was willing to entertain the notion of Monday Night Football (whose contract with Disney/ESPN expires in 2021) being a “candidate” for exclusive streaming via Amazon, Facebook or YouTube, he offered a reminder of a key local stat. About 13% to 15% of U.S. TV viewers still get their TV over the air. “I don’t think you’re going to want to disenfranchise them if you’re the NFL.”

One X factor for local TV stocks — especially since the stunning defeat by regulators of Sinclair Broadcast Group’s bid to acquire Tribune Media — has been the role of Washington. The FCC is considering the current cap on local station ownership, which limits a single owner from controlling stations reaching 39% of the U.S. Sinclair-Tribune tested that, initially projecting reach to more than 70% of households. Most observers see a raising of the cap to about 50% as a likely outcome.

Carter spoke for many in the rapidly consolidating — and staunchly regulation-averse — station sector by asking, “Intellectually, why is there a cap?”

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