- The media industry is suddenly mulling a flurry of huge deals.
- Cord cutting, streaming, and shifting consumer and advertiser preferences have upended the power structure as former giants scramble for relevance down the road.
- The stakes are as high as it gets — who controls content, distribution, advertising, and connections with consumers.
If you spend any time on Twitter and follow any media industry people, you'll often come away dizzy and fairly certain that every media company is buying everyone.
It started a year ago when AT&T announced it had reached an agreement to buy Time Warner. Things really turned upside down when 21st Century Fox — just three years after trying to buy Time Warner — signaled it wanted to sell some assets to Disney.
Then on Thursday, it was reported that Comcast may buy some of Fox. Or Verizon may. And of course, President Donald Trump may not allow AT&T to buy Time Warner. The Federal Communications Commission is potentially loosening media ownership rules. Net neutrality may go away.
When did media become 'Game of Thrones'?
The media industry used to be primarily about content, distribution, and advertising. Now the emergence of deep-pocketed tech giants has changed everything. People are streaming, ditching cable, avoiding live TV, and watching shows on mobile.
"The one takeaway is that the media industry is facing real pressure," said Rich Greenfield, a media and tech analyst for BTIG. "You've got cord cutting, ads moving to mobile, etc. None of these companies have been prepared for that."
So all these media machinations are about power and control. These giants want to make as much money as possible, position themselves for the future, and prevent rivals from getting into their territory.
"What we've noticed is where there's big change there's often a lot of M&A," said Terry Kawaja, the founder and CEO of the M&A advisory firm Luma Partners. "In this case, it's motivated by fear, not greed."
What gives you the most power in the future?
"In the pre-web video era, it was all the same for decades. Content was king — distribution was queen," said Toby Chapman, an associate partner at the strategy consulting firm OC&C. "Then, suddenly people are talking about, is content king anymore? In a platform world, is it the relationship with consumer? Or is it the pipes?"
Those questions get at the heart of why everyone in media seems to be rethinking who their friends and enemies are.
- Is content still king? Does the company with the best shows and movies (like Disney) have the most power?
- Is distribution where the true power lies? Does the company with cable boxes or broadband pipes in people's homes (like, say, Comcast) rule?
- Is having a direct relationship with the consumer the winning strategy?Amazon is one of America's favorite brands, and Netflix is a favorite with millennials.
- Or is it all about the browser or the interface? Maybe delivery mechanisms don't matter, as long as you own the browser (like Google) or the interface (like Facebook).
- Or do you need to have everything?
"No matter how big you are, tech and user behavior throws it all off," said Elgin Thompson, the managing director at Digital Capital Advisors. "Unless you are the full ecosystem, you're not an emperor. These companies want to be so big they can create their own weather."
It seems that, suddenly, Fox has many suitors interested in some of its assets (it's not selling its Fox network or Fox News or Fox Sports). Why?
The rise of Netflix
You may recall, Disney is planning to take on Netflix with its own streaming service, and it may want to own as much content as possible, so Fox could be a big help.
Disney already owns Marvel, "Star Wars," and Pixar. Theoretically, if it gets Fox's content and other TV companies start starving Netflix of their shows, Netflix would have fewer people signing on to binge "Breaking Bad" and would have to live and die on its own shows.
"A lot of people would look at them and say, they've stood alone in that space," Chapman of OC&C said. "But they may suddenly have very credible competitors. And you've also got so many channels who've never been good friends with Netflix."
Netflix, of course, plans to spend $8 billion on content next year. So don't count it out of anything.
The Verizon playbook
At the same time, Verizon is interested in Fox as well, according to The Wall Street Journal. What is it doing?
Like AT&T, all of the wireless giants need to get into new revenue streams, since pretty much everyone in the US who wants a cellphone has one and they keep switching to get better deals.
Verizon has acquired AOL and Yahoo in recent years to challenge Facebook and Google, which remains a brutal task. But it has a very limited footprint in TV, other than through its fiber-optic Fios service. This gets it in the TV game, theoretically.
What about Comcast?
What about Comcast? Many see this cable company as being in great shape, given that it has such a complete set of assets: NBCUniversal (TV networks, and a studio) and the largest pay-TV service in the US. Buying some of Fox could help strengthen it against competitors. One very appealing asset: Sky, which is sort of like Comcast or DirecTV in the UK.
Yet Greenfield of BTIG believes Comcast may have to sell NBCUniversal if it wants to make any more big moves, given the Trump administration's objections to the AT&T-Time Warner deal.
Isn't everyone cutting the cord?
Millions of people still have cable. A lot of money can still be wrung out of that business over the next few years — and it may even have some untapped potential.
For example, Comcast theoretically knows what you watch and what you do on the web. It could tie that together with data for advertisers and programmers, for example.
And don't forget that even if you cut the cable cord, you're likely to keep the broadband one. Cable TV companies are essentially broadband companies. And that business isn't going away quickly. The company that delivers broadband to your home could always charge cord cutters more. And if net neutrality goes away, they could also charge some companies like Netflix a toll to reach consumers.
A big limit to cable companies' power is that are inherently regional. You can't get Comcast in New York, for example. No one has been able to roll up all these cable companies into a national play. At least not yet.
Still, these companies have the most to lose in an "over the top" TV future. As Kawaja of Luma Partners explained it, a company like CBS is happy to deliver its network to new distributors like Sling TV or YouTube TV. Even if people cut the cord for so-called skinny bundles or they just pay for CBS All Access to get the new "Star Trek," CBS makes money.
But recent earnings reports show both Comcast and DirecTV losing subscribers faster. "Now everyone is saying, oh shit, it's on," Kawaja said. "Cord cutting is suddenly not a college-graduate thing. It's accelerating faster. And the distribution people have the most urgency to move. An OTT world messes with their bundle first and foremost."
Who else should we think about?
Charter Communications: Charter Communication is another big regional pay-TV provider (it is the company that bought Time Warner Cable a few years ago). According to the New York Post, Charter has considered buying the cable TV company Cox Communications or even selling itself to SoftBank.
(By the way, watch SoftBank in this area. It has lots of money. It is the Iron Bank in this scenario.)
Liberty Media: Liberty Media's chairman, John Malone, told CNBC that the company had received four acquisition overtures recently.
Malone is a legendary media-industry investor who is worth billions. And the chairman of Liberty Media could make a big move at any moment. Liberty Media has stakes in SiriusXM, Formula One Racing, and the Atlanta Braves. Malone also has a big stake in Discovery Communications.
Altice: What's an Altice again? Ad-tech nerds know it as the company that bought the web video company Teads last year. It acquired Cablevision a few years ago. Now, the stock is tanking, and it could be looking for a savior.
Viacom and Discover/Scripps: These cable programmers used to be among the power players in the TV industry. Now they're suddenly vulnerable. Do they need to find buyers? Greenfield argues that Viacom needs to reunite with CBS (the two companies split a decade ago) "yesterday."
What about selling to someone like Google or Facebook, each of whom wants to get into premium content in a big way (and TV advertising). Greenfield says no way. "Tech companies can build — they don't need to buy," he said. "Nothing has changed my thinking on that."
A good example is Amazon agreeing to make an original series centered on "Lord of the Rings." You don't have to own a studio or a network to do content, if you can spend a lot of money.
Amazon: It's coming for every industry, so it seems. The billionaire media mogul Malone earlier this week called it "the Death Star," CNBC reported. Though in this case, the White Walkers may be a better analogy, since few know what Amazon really wants to do.
Dave Morgan, the CEO of the data-centric TV ad company Simulmedia, sees a flurry of activity.
"Charter could combine with Discovery/Scripps," he said. "Or they could do a deal with Sprint or T-Mobile, since they each will need a scaled partner. Comcast will talk to one or both of those wireless companies. As will Dish."
Morgan also predicted that Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, and Google could become sudden buyers. In particular, he predicts Netflix could buy a studio to hedge against Disney. "I think that they will have to, and may want a network for its ability to help them market their programming and maximize its monetization."
The wild card
Trump and his team are the great unknown. Few thought the AT&T-Time Warner deal was in trouble. Now it seems headed for a court battle.
"Usually logic reigns supreme," Thompson said. "But with Trump, none of this matters. That's what these guys have to deal with."