Wednesday, February 18, 2009

While Cable System Operators Have Fought Consumer Choice (aka A la carte) Cable, Consumers are taking their dollars elsewhere. In Response, the Big 5 Media Corporations are Dumping Less Lucrative Businesses...

2/18/2009--More and more the entertainment mega corporations, the big 5, ie., Disney, Fox, Viacom-CBS, GE-BBC-Universal and Time-Warner, are dumping their less-profitable cable and satellite distribution arms, while retaining their ultra-profitable broadcasting and content-production divisions (studios and cable channels).

Thanks to the internet reaching as much or more of the country than cable and satellite, a lot of the TV fare we have to pay big bucks for on cable can now be found on free websites sponsored by the Big 5. These sites typically have very few commercials, maybe 2 minutes in a half hour show instead of 8. Some of the best shows are archived forever, such as all 35 years of Saturday Night Live, and all ten years of the Daily Show. What the Big 5 are doing is cutting out the middlemen. And since cable system monopolies have jacked up their rates much higher than the rate of inflation for over 20 years, it's hard to feel too sympathetic for them.

Fox last year traded away the #1 DirectTV satellite service to Liberty Media (an owner of cable channels), and this month reported a $6.4 billion loss.

Seeing the writing on the wall, Time-Warner is spinning off the nation's 2nd largest cable system as an independent company. Given that Time-Warner owns numerous cable channels, which are essentially TV "brands" that they can distribute any way they want, they now can fully embrace giving viewers the maximum number of ways to see their programming, whether it's on the internet, cable, phone company TV or satellite. Their bottom line was really hurting, with their last quarterly loss being $16 billion, so I can understand why they chose to get out of a very competitive business. Contrary to what corporate propagandists say, they don't like competition.

Another big cable system owner, Charter, just declared bankruptcy. Charter is controlled by Paul Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft who couldn't transfer his success in software to the cable business.

Controlling all facets of a business, or what is termed "vertical integration", has made a lot of money for stock traders who helped the big guys gobble up additional variations of their core business. The big guys haven't always done as well. AT & T really blew it 10 years ago when they bought TCI, which then owned Liberty Media and the nation's top cable system operator. Very soon they wrote off around $50 billion in losses, and spun off Liberty Media to the public, and sold the cable systems to Comcast. They recovered well (well, maybe not for us) by the Bush administration letting them merge with SBC and BellSouth and buy Cingular Wireless, essentially rendering the U.S. a 2 -phone company country (except for some tiny competitors).


This trend of binging and purging really hit Clear Channel, which hugely overpaid for over 1000 radio stations and hundreds of thousand of billboards 10 years ago and then they lost billions and dumped a lot of stations. CBS likewise gorged on radio stations and billboards and then wrote off a lot of paper-value recently. Time-Warner blew over $100 billion by buying America OnLine and found that Americans weren't that keen about buying everything over the internet.

In the end, we still have 5 mega corporations that produce and distribute most of our news and entertainment. But at least we have more ways to get it, at lower cost, and that's good.

--Rex Frankel, 2/18/2009

A Historical Trend of Sell-offs:

RADIO: ABC sold off much of their news and music radio stations to Citadel Broadcasters in 2006, while keeping their ESPN radio and Radio Disney stations. NBC had sold off their radio division in the 1980's. Only CBS remains heavily in the radio business but is selling a lot of stations in middle American markets in order to keep their big holdings in big cities.

MUSIC: All of the Big 5 have been out of recorded music since Universal Music (which had previously bought ABC's labels) was bought by Vivendi of France in the 1990's and CBS's Columbia and Epic records division were sold to Sony in the 1980's. NBC's RCA labels were sold off in the 1980's and are now owned by Sony.

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