Year-End: Will Big Media Companies Hit Their Stride, Or Their Peak, In 2014?

One in a series of Deadline stories that look back on 2013 and ahead to 2014.

People in and around the media business may look at 2013 as the calm before the storm. The Dow Jones Media Index, up nearly 39% this year (as of mid-December), is the highest it’s been in at least a decade while stock prices are at or near all-time highs for industry leaders including CBS, Comcast, Discovery Communications, Disney, Netflix, and Viacom. Many execs say that the good times will keep rolling in 2014. Additional ad revenues will pour into the market for the Olympics and mid-term elections, and media companies are making headway in their efforts to adjust to social media and new technologies. But next year moguls may have to work harder than they have in years for their unconscionably high pay. They face a possible return of merger mania, new efforts by tech giants to divert advertising and subscription dollars, and skittish shareholders poised to sell at the first sign that company earnings can’t fulfill their outsized expectations.

Related: Deadline Big Media 65 – The 6 Big Questions for 2014 Podcast

Here are a few of the specific questions on the minds of industry insiders as they look ahead to 2014:

Will Netflix tap the brakes on its content spending spree?

Netflix signHollywood’s becoming addicted to Netflix’s money. After a few years of license deals it owed creators of its streaming content $6.5B at the end of September, with 43% due in less than a year – and it has vowed to commit nearly $3B in 2014 for TV shows and movies. Those are huge numbers for a company that’s expected to generate $4.4B in revenue this year. Netflix can justify the outlays because it’s growing like Topsy. The number of domestic households that subscribed to the $7.99-a-month service grew 25.8% to nearly 30M in the 12 months ending in September. That fueled a 300+% increase in the stock price in 2013 making Netflix more valuable than Sony in investors’ eyes. “At some point [Netflix] could emerge as a monopolistic player in its [subscription video on demand] niche that would allow it to increase pricing, subs, and leverage in content negotiations,” Janney Capital Markets’ Tony Wible says, summarizing the bull case. But bears warn that Netflix will find itself overextended if sub growth slows, Amazon or Hulu gain momentum, and especially if cable companies aggressively move to a usage-based pricing system for broadband. Producers shouldn’t “assume Netflix and Amazon will bail them out and buy everything they make, forever,” Bernstein Research’s Todd Junger notes. “Eventually somebody has to lose.” With several shareholders urging CEO Reed Hastings to show Hollywood a little less love, studios in 2014 will have their antenna up for any signal that indicates a shift in Netflix’s spending plans. (more…)

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