Kate Bulkley, Media Analyst.

Content rules for US giants

By Kate Bulkley

Broadcast News

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For Broadcast October 10, 2016

Pipeline and distribution are top of the agenda, says Kate Bulkley

Shane Smith’s prediction of a media “blood bath” may have a hint of hyperbole, but there’s no question that the head of Vice Media was right: consolidation is in the air this autumn.

From rumours that Disney and Salesforce.com are looking to buy Netflix, to the remerger of MTV and Nickelodeon owner Viacom with its former stablemate CBS, plus the appetite for international expansion at NBC Universal, there are opportunities for buyers and sellers alike.

But while Disney’s interest in Netflix is another example of traditional media looking to up its game in the online world, the relinking of Viacom and CBS after 11 years apart is a bailout. It is a clear acknowledgement that Viacom, whose share price has slipped 15% in the past year alone, has not grasped the digital nettle very well at all.

The irony, of course, is that when Viacom and CBS were split by owner Sumner Redstone 11 years ago, it was the youth-oriented cable networks led by MTV that were fast-growing and sexy, compared with the more staid broadcasting and radio businesses of CBS.

A decade later and the fortunes of the businesses have reversed. CBS shares have nearly tripled, while Viacom’s are below the spin-off price. Young people are more interested in Snapchat, Instagram and YouTube than Viacom’s cable networks, while advertisers are for the most part sticking with CBS.

Last week, NBC Universal chief executive Steve Burke underlined the obvious value of content when he told the RTS London Conference that owning Working Title and Downton Abbey producer Carnival Films has been important for NBCU’s bottom line. And he is keen to do more deals for talent and content outside of the US.

“NBC Universal and Comcast are less international than News Corp or the Walt Disney Company or Time Warner, and I look at that as an opportunity,” he said. But Burke is not so keen on buying ITV or any non-US broadcaster.

“I think it’s very challenging to think about the network side of free-to-air broadcasting anywhere outside of the US,” he said.

The context is that Viacom purchased Channel 5 for £450m two years ago. That deal was done by the now booted-out Philippe Dauman, with a view to cross-promoting and cross-commissioning with its cable TV channels and achieving bigger ad revenues.

In October 2014, Dauman told the Broadcasting Press Guild that he thought he could outpace Channel 4 for ratings by targeting a younger demographic with programming that worked across MTV, Nickelodeon and C5. Although its performance is up, the idea that Viacom could simply flex its muscles and overtake C4 has proven wide of the mark.

The TV network business is tough. Average daily TV viewing over the past five years has fallen 9% in the US and 11% in the UK. Yet overall video viewing (including online content) is up 12%, according to Nielsen figures.

That means hard choices for Viacom and all media players, who are seeking new content funding and distribution models. Post-Brexit, ITV is a lot cheaper for potential buyers – but perhaps priorities lie elsewhere.

Content pipeline and digital distribution appear to be top of the agenda for US media giants.

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