Kate Bulkley, Media Analyst.

Time to bulk up or fall behind

By Kate Bulkley

Broadcast News

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For Broadcast November 03, 2016

Context is everything for AT&T/Time Warner merger, says Kate Bulkley

Netflix finally unveils The Crown this week. It’s lush and filmic. It has a single vintage train shot that cost £200,000 and CGI elephants in Kenya. Bafta says it will allow The Crown to compete in its TV drama category.

Drama is all the rage at the moment. ITV’s The Halcyon, a sort of Downton Abbey meets Hotel Babylon, is high-quality TV. The sequel to Deutschland 83 has been commissioned not by the original broadcaster, RTL, but by Amazon.

Meanwhile, Hollywood stars from Kevin Spacey to Kiefer Sutherland now think TV is the best place for them – and money is only part of the reason.

Sutherland is the star of new ABC hit Designated Survivor. At Mipcom last month, he said that TV offers “depth and breadth”, while in film, “you’re probably going to be wearing a cape” (see Marvel’s Doctor Strange).

A large part of this is the seemingly bottomless pockets and appetite of the digital players, led by Netflix and Amazon, and traditional media players’ attempts to keep up.

Global rights to Designated Survivor were the subject of a fraught bidding war: at one point, a consortium of Sky and Fox International was pitted against Netflix. After several rounds, Netflix was the ‘designated survivor’ of the auction, thanks to its bigger cheque.

Netflix’s long-term business model may seem a little rocky to some, including this commentator, but for now, the subscription streaming giant is spending big to stand out: Netflix says it will fork out $6bn (£5bn) on original programming next year. In terms of original commissions (not including live sport), Netflix now outspends each of the big US networks, according to Boston Consulting Group.

In this light, AT&T’s plan to buy Time Warner, home of HBO, Harry Potter and CNN, for $85.4bn (£70bn) goes beyond a big phone company trying to bulk up on sexy content to sell mobile phone subscriptions.

The deal, which does face some regulatory hurdles, is part of what WPP chief executive Martin Sorrell calls a “consolidation wave”, following Comcast’s purchase of NBC Universal and Lionsgate’s $4.4bn (£3.6bn) deal for Starz.

AT&T chief executive Randall Stephenson argues that the deal with Time Warner will help drive prices down, because only a company with both scale and content can truly innovate in terms of à la carte pricing and new, data-driven advertising models.

One analyst put it more cynically: the real bogeymen are Netflix and Amazon and their huge wallets: “It’s a big boy’s game and Time Warner needs a sugar daddy.”

Sorrell calls for a “third force”: consortia of broadcasters from different territories, tying up rights that would otherwise go to one of the big global digital platforms.

For him, this is the only way to make sure there is competition for his big advertiser clients to choose from.

Given that having the big TV shows is going to be an increasingly important part of winning audiences and subscribers going forward, perhaps Channel 4’s deal for The Great British Bake Off should be applauded.

Sponsorship deals for the show reportedly start at an eye-watering £8m. Let’s hope WPP sends some clients C4’s way – at a reported £75m over three years, it hasn’t come cheap. But then the tastiest content rarely does, especially in today’s market.

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