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Who Will Buy Charter? Altice, Comcast, SoftBank, or None of the Above?

The French press did not take kindly to comments from MoffettNathanson analyst Craig Moffett, who suggested Altice’s ability to swallow up Charter Communications in a deal worth at least $185 billion dollars was “not credible.”

Panelists appearing on French language business news channel BFM TV chuckled at Mr. Moffett’s ability to predict Altice chairman Patrick Drahi’s next move.

“Mr. Moffett does not know Mr. Drahi like we’ve come to know Mr. Drahi,” noted one analyst. “We’ve learned not to underestimate his ability to put together business deals that some would call bold, others financially reckless, yet he does it again and again. If Mr. Drahi wants [Charter], he shall have it.”

French business reporters have scoffed at Altice for years, well before the company arrived in the United States to acquire Cablevision and Suddenlink and rebrand them as Altice.

“When you don’t take him seriously, that is when he strikes,” reported BFM.

Drahi is a master of using other people’s money to finance massive telecommunications deals. For him, bigger is essential, and that means he’d either have to acquire Comcast or Charter or hope to build a cable empire out of smaller cable companies he’d acquire and combine.

Drahi (center)

Multiple independent media outlets are tracking Drahi’s movements. Le Figaro reports Drahi has spent months laying the groundwork for his next big takeover in the United States and the newspaper knew all along it would be a major deal, because Drahi is banking on the prospects of emptying the pockets of millions of American cable subscribers to fund his operations. Americans pay vastly more for cable television and broadband service than consumers in Europe because of a lack of regulation and competition.

The newspaper adds that Drahi routinely tells investors and reporters he wants to be “number one or two” in all countries where he does business. Right now Altice is the fourth largest cable operator in the United States, an absolutely intolerable situation for Mr. Drahi.

Drahi is well aware of the enormous cost of a Charter acquisition, and Bloomberg News reports he is considering asking the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board and BC Partners to help fund the potential merger. Both groups are already familiar with Mr. Drahi and Altice and were instrumental in his acquisition of Cablevision and Suddenlink. Despite the potential help, Moffett still believes Charter is well outside of Altice’s reach.

“None of the proposed suitors—Verizon, SoftBank, Altice—have the balance sheet to acquire Charter,” Moffett wrote his investor clients in a research note. He notes Greg Maffei, chairman of Liberty Broadband, is unconvinced of the wisdom of allowing a buyer to use its other highly leveraged companies as compensation in a merger deal.

Moffett believes the deal has to make sense to two people to proceed – John Malone, Charter’s largest shareholder and ironically Drahi’s mentor and Charter CEO Thomas Rutledge, who was America’s highest paid executive in 2016. He stands to get considerably richer if he can fend off a deal until he achieves tens of millions in stock option awards, first when Charter’s average share price tops $455.66 a share and stays there for at least 60 days and then again when the share price exceeds $564 a share and stays there for 60 days. This morning, Charter Communications was selling at just over $399 a share. All of the merger and acquisition talk is helping boost Charter’s stock price, but Rutledge doesn’t want the company sold until after he can walk out with his compensation package fully funded or finds a buyer willing to make him whole.

As for Malone, he’s always been willing to cash out, but only when the deal makes financial sense to him and avoids taxes.

“Let’s put a finer point on it,” Moffett added. “The ONLY reason [Liberty Media chief] John Malone would be willing to swap his equity in Charter for equity in Altice would be if he believed, with real conviction, that Altice could simply manage the asset better than Charter’s current management.  It is not a knock on Altice to suggest that there is simply no way that Liberty would believe that. Next.”

But then, Time Warner Cable’s management didn’t take an acquisition offer from Charter Communications seriously either when it was first proposed. Time Warner Cable believed selling to Comcast made better sense to shareholders and executives. Like Altice, Charter was a much smaller cable operator proposing to buy a much larger one. In the end, regulators rejected the deal with Comcast and with Wall Street beating the drum for someone to acquire Time Warner Cable, Charter’s sweetened second offer was readily accepted.

Charter’s biggest downside to a potential acquirer is the $60 billion in debt it took on buying Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks. Debt at SoftBank also makes Moffett skeptical of a deal between Sprint and Charter.

“They [SoftBank] already sit on $135 billion of debt,” Moffett wrote. “Add Charter’s $63 billion and you’re within a rounding error of $200 billion. Add any cash at all for Charter’s equity and you’re flirting with a quarter trillion (trillion!) dollars of debt. Were SoftBank to buy Charter, they would become not only the most heavily indebted non-financial company the world has ever seen, they would in fact be more indebted than most countries.”

To avoid crushing debt scuttling a deal, Citigroup speculated in a report to their investors that Comcast and Altice could partner up to divvy up Charter Communications themselves. The Wall Street bank speculates Comcast would help finance a deal if it meant it would take control of Charter’s customers formerly served by Time Warner Cable. Legacy Charter customers and those formerly served by Bright House would become part of the Altice family.

Such a transaction would likely overcome Malone’s objections over an Altice-only offer leaving him with a large pile of Altice USA stock.

Just as with Time Warner Cable, once a company is seen willing to deal, fervor on Wall Street to make a deal — any deal — can drive companies into transactions they might not otherwise have considered earlier. If Charter is seen as a seller, there will be growing pressure to find a buyer, if only to satiate investors and executives hoping for a windfall and Wall Street banks seeking tens of millions in deal advisory fees.

Democrats Quiz FCC’s Ajit Pai About Favorable Treatment of Sinclair Broadcasting

Phillip Dampier August 14, 2017 Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

Sinclair’s deal with Tribune will make them by far the largest TV station ownership group in the country, owning 16% of the TV stations in the U.S. (Image: Mother Jones)

After a hard-hitting piece analyzing the close ties between President Donald J. Trump, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, and Sinclair Broadcasting appeared in this morning’s New York Times, a group of leading House Democrats serving on the House Energy & Commerce Committee have written Mr. Pai asking for answers about his possible “favorable treatment” of Sinclair Broadcasting since becoming Chairman of the FCC.

These reports, according to the letter, raise two overarching questions:

  • Whether actions taken by the FCC under your leadership show a pattern of preferential treatment for Sinclair, and
  • Whether a series of interactions between your office, the Trump Campaign and Trump Administration, and Sinclair demonstrate inappropriate coordination.

The letter’s signers — all Democrats — are Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (ranking member of the full committee), Rep. Mike Doyle (ranking member of the Communications and Technology Subcommittee), and Rep. Diana DeGette (ranking member, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations).

The 12-page letter presents Pai with multiple examples of potential collusion and favorable treatment of a television station group that airs mandatory pro-Trump Administration commentaries on all of its local newscasts, employs a former Trump campaign aide, has sought private meetings with administration officials , and has made substantial campaign contributions.

The Times article appears to be the source for most of the concern expressed in the letter, which lays out multiple issues and seeks Mr. Pai’s comments and explanations.

At the beginning of the Trump Administration, the Democrats claim, Mr. Pai has undertaken a number of actions in his role as Chairman of the FCC that fall squarely in line with the corporate expansion agenda at Sinclair Broadcast Group. Among the most important was Mr. Pai’s sudden decision to bring a party-line vote to reinstate an archaic UHF Discount rule, which allows a company to downgrade the reach of its UHF stations for the purposes of determining if it is within the FCC’s limit of one station owner reaching no more than 39% of the country. This “discount” was established at a time when analog television signals on the UHF band (Channels 14+) were at a distinct coverage disadvantage over stations occupying the VHF (Channels 2-13) band. The discount was retired after the U.S. switched to digital television broadcasting, which largely eliminated this coverage disparity.

TV station owners saw a revival of the UHF Discount not as a way to deal with reception differences, but rather as a loophole to launch new acquisitions by discounting the coverage of their current stations. Only one company – Sinclair Broadcasting – stood to gain the most from the reinstatement of the UHF Discount. Almost on cue, two weeks after Pai brought this obscure rule up and reinstated it on a 2-1 vote, Sinclair announced a blockbuster merger with Tribune to acquire stations that will allow Sinclair to cover 70% of the United States, a number impossible to achieve without Pai’s support for the UHF Discount.

Democrats argue this was not what Congress intended, and it allows one station owner to own and control approximately double the number of stations the ownership cap would normally prohibit. They argue such a deal will reduce the diversity of media voices in communities across the country, especially in markets where Sinclair will own and operate more than one television station.

The New York Times provides this chart illustrating the vast expansion of stations if it wins control of Tribune Media.

The Democrats are also upset the FCC, under Pai’s leadership, appears to be in a hurry to get this deal reviewed and likely approved. It set a review window of just 30 days for public comment, considerably shorter than earlier, less controversial acquisition deals. Critics of the deal contend that the FCC is giving inadequate consideration of the deal’s lack of public interest benefits, and Sinclair’s application is vague and its claims are difficult to validate. Pai seems unconcerned, leading some to believe he intends to rubber stamp his approval with minimal conditions.

Ajit Pai, Chairman of U.S Federal Communications Commission. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

Under Pai’s watch, the Democrats charge, Sinclair has already benefited from a ‘rush to approval’ mentality at the FCC. Sinclair’s earlier deal to acquire stations owned by the Bonten Media Group was also convenient, coming shortly after the FCC under Mr. Pai revoked guidance that would have required the FCC to closely scrutinize the transaction. The FCC granted the deal, despite the fact several of Bonten’s stations are in areas where Sinclair now holds operating agreements to manage other local stations. Large station groups have used these agreements as loopholes to effectively gain day-to-day control of stations without actually transferring their ownership.

The Democrats also argue that Sinclair is well positioned to be in the lead of Next Gen TV, ATSC 3.0 technology that will replace the current digital TV standard in the United States in the next few years. Sinclair is the biggest cheerleader of the new technology, and Mr. Pai coincidentally has put a rush on getting ATSC 3.0 approved and into the marketplace. ONE Media 3.0, a wholly owned subsidiary of Sinclair, just happens to own six critical patents essential for using the Next Gen TV standard. That means every station in the country moving to the next broadcast platform will have to pay royalties to Sinclair estimated in the billions.

As the Times reports, whenever Sinclair sought something from Washington as part of its corporate agenda, the FCC’s Mr. Pai quickly aligned himself and the FCC’s Republican majority to fulfill Sinclair’s wishes.

Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-N.J.) is ranking member of the House Energy & Commerce Committee.

The Democrats also question whether there is direct coordination between the Administration, Sinclair, and the FCC:

  • After the election, President Trump reportedly met with the Executive Chairman and former CEO of Sinclair and discussed changing FCC rules to help Sinclair. A news account stated that after the election, President Trump met with David Smith, Sinclair’s Executive Chairman and former CEO. According to this report, “potential FCC rule changes were discussed” after President Trump asked Mr. Smith, “What do you need to happen in your business?”

  • Before you became Chairman of the FCC, you reportedly met with then President-elect Trump in New York. Reports indicate that on January 16 of this year, you met with then-President-elect Trump in New York in a meeting that did not appear on your official calendar.

  • In March, shortly after you became Chairman of the FCC, you met with President Trump in the Oval Office. An FCC spokesperson confirmed that the meeting occurred, but did not indicate what was discussed during the meeting. When asked directly about your meetings with President Trump, you declined to disclose what you discussed, saying “I am not at liberty to say.”

  • The week after the election, you reportedly attended a company conference for Sinclair’s general managers, during which you met with Sinclair’s CEO. According to a Politico report, in January of this year, you met with Sinclair’s former CEO, David Smith, as well as the newly named Sinclair CEO, Chris Ripley.

  • The President’s campaign reportedly “struck a deal” with Sinclair to “secure better media coverage.” This arrangement came to light after the election, when Jared Kushner reportedly revealed that in exchange for access to then-candidate Trump and his campaign, “Sinclair would broadcast Trump interviews across the country without commentary.” Sinclair representatives have defended this arrangement by claiming that the Clinton campaign was offered the option for extended interviews with local anchors as well, but did not accept.

  • In April, Boris Epshteyn, who was “most recently Special Assistant to The President and Assistant Communications Director for Surrogate Operations for the Executive Office of President Trump,” and formerly a “senior advisor to the Trump campaign,” joined Sinclair to provide on-air political commentary. Epshteyn’s segments are “must-run” programming for Sinclair stations, with nine segments airing per week. One report has criticized the segments as “propaganda” and reporting on Sinclair’s selection of “must-run” programming has raised “suggestions that Sinclair pushed right-leaning views.”

The Democrats are requesting Mr. Pai answer their letter and provide additional information no later than Aug. 28.

Discovery Builds Leveraging Power in Scripps Networks Acquisition

Phillip Dampier July 31, 2017 Competition, Consumer News, Online Video, Reuters No Comments

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Discovery Communications Inc is acquiring Scripps Networks Interactive Inc for $11.9 billion in a deal expected to boost the company’s negotiating leverage as it seeks new audiences.

The acquisition, announced on Monday, brings together Scripps’ largely female-focused lifestyle channels such as HGTV, Travel Channel and Food Network with Discovery’s Animal Planet and Discovery Channel, whose viewers are primarily male.

Despite expectations of $350 million in total cost synergies, many analysts questioned how the combined company would compete long term as viewers cut cords to cable providers and as advertising and ratings decline.

Discovery shares ended regular trading down 8.2 percent at $24.60 while those of Scripps finished up 0.6 percent at $87.41.

Discovery is paying 70 percent cash and 30 percent stock for Scripps. The total price of the deal is $14.6 billion including debt.

“While we believe the two companies are likely better positioned together, rather than apart, the longer-term issues facing the industry still remain,” wrote John Janedis, an analyst at Jefferies, in a note on Monday.

Both Discovery and Scripps reported quarterly earnings on Monday that reflected the challenges facing U.S. media companies. Scripps missed its second quarter ad guidance and lowered its full-year estimates, and Discovery reported flat advertising and lower affiliate revenue.

U.S. television networks and cable providers are under pressure as more viewers watch shows and movies on phones and tablets. There is also increased competition for viewers from streaming services such as Netflix Inc and Amazon.com Inc.

Five of the largest U.S. pay TV providers posted subscriber losses during the second quarter.

The combined company’s larger programming slate might give it an advantage in negotiations for inclusion in skinny bundles, or economy-priced cable packages that offer fewer channels than a standard contract.

After the merger, the company will offer 300,000 hours of content and capture about a 20 percent share of ad-supported cable audiences in the United States, Discovery said on an analyst call Monday morning.

“The transaction supports and accelerates Discovery’s pivot from a linear TV-only company to a leading content provider across all screens and services around the world,” David Zaslav, Discovery’s chief executive, told investors.

The combined company would also have more muscle in negotiations with cable and other distributors when contracts come up for renewal, executives said.

By adding Scripps programming, Discovery could also launch its own “skinny bundle” of networks at a low cost, executives said.

The combined company would be home to five of the top cable networks for women with more than a 20 percent share of women prime-time viewers in the United States, according to Discovery.

Discovery will evaluate the Scripps channels, as it has its own, to figure out if any could be web-based, Zaslav said on the call.

Scripps has been considered a takeover target since the Scripps family trust, which controlled the company, was dissolved five years ago.

Under the terms of the deal, Scripps CEO Ken Lowe would join the board of the combined company.

The deal requires regulatory and shareholder approvals. Major shareholders including cable magnate John Malone, Advance/Newhouse Programming Partnership and members of the Scripps family, support the deal, the companies said.

Discovery had tried unsuccessfully twice before to buy Scripps. Discovery outbid Viacom Inc for Scripps, Reuters reported first last week.

Guggenheim Securities and Goldman Sachs served as financial advisers to Discovery. Allen & Co LLC and J.P. Morgan Securities served as financial advisers to Scripps.

Evercore Group served as financial adviser to the Scripps family.

Reporting by: Jessica Toonkel; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Steve Orlofsky

Citigroup Urges Comcast to Buy Verizon; Nice Monopoly if You Can Get It

Citigroup is advocating for another super-sized merger, this time lobbying Comcast to buy Verizon Communications — a deal worth up to $215 billion.

Citigroup analyst Jason Bazinet believes the more corporate friendly Trump Administration would not block or impede a deal that would bring together the nation’s largest cable operator and wireless provider. Such a merger would leave a significant portion of the mid-Atlantic, northeast, and New England with a monopoly for telephone and broadband service.

Bazinet offers four reasons why the deal makes sense to Wall Street banks like his:

  • Verizon Wireless could give Comcast customers internet access seamlessly inside and outside of the home;
  • The cost of expanding fiber optics to power faster internet and forthcoming 5G wireless broadband would be effectively split between the two companies and there would be no need to install competing fiber networks;
  • Verizon would benefit from additional wireless consolidation because it would no longer face significant emerging wireless competition from Comcast;
  • A combined Comcast-Verizon could see their corporate tax rate slashed by a considerable percentage, reducing tax liabilities.

We’d add Wall Street banks that win the enviable position of advising one company or the other on a merger deal stand to make tens of millions of dollars on consulting fees as well.

Such a merger would be unthinkable under prior administrations, if only because a combination of Verizon and Comcast would eliminate the only significant telecommunications competitor for tens of millions of Americans, giving the combined company a monopoly on telecommunications services.

Some Wall Street analysts believe a deal is still possible with Republicans in charge in Washington. But some spinoffs are likely. One scenario would involve selling off Verizon’s wireline assets in areas where Comcast and Verizon compete. But increasing questions about the financial viability of a likely buyer like Frontier Communications may make a deal bundling old copper wire assets and FiOS Fiber in New Jersey, the District of Columbia, Maryland, Delaware, Massachusetts, and Virginia a difficult sell for other buyers.

“If Brian came knocking on the door, I’d have a discussion with him about it,” Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam reportedly said this spring, according to Bloomberg News, referring to Comcast CEO Brian Roberts.

McAdam shouldn’t wait in his office, however. This morning, as part of a quarterly results conference call, Roberts made clear he wasn’t particularly interested in a merger with a wireless provider.

“I thought we were really clear last quarter,” Roberts said. “Yes, we always look at the world around us and do our jobs related to the opportunities that are out that. But we love our business. No disrespect to wireless, but that’s a tough business.”

FCC Planning to Allow Sweeping Mergermania for Local TV Stations

Phillip Dampier July 26, 2017 Competition, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't 1 Comment

(Image: Free Press)

Along with a new TV season starting this fall, the Federal Communications Commission plans to launch a new season of sweeping deregulation in the broadcasting industry, allowing a handful of companies to acquire masses of local TV stations as a result of easing ownership limits.

Bloomberg News reports FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, with likely support from fellow Republican commissioner Mike O’Rielly, will unveil new rules that will allow TV station owners like Nexstar, Tegna, E.W. Scripps, and Meredith to acquire dozens of local stations, even in cities where they already own stations.

The new rules, likely to pass on a party line vote, would allow companies to own two of the four most-viewed stations in a market, in addition to several other lesser-rated outlets. Broadcasters are also heavily lobbying Republicans to insert another new rule that would lift the current ban on owning both the local daily newspaper and a TV station.

Broadcasters have been itching to launch a sweeping wave of station ownership consolidation to boost advertising revenue, cut costs, and gain more leverage over cable and satellite companies as they continue to raise fees charged for consent to carry those stations on pay television lineups.

The Obama Administration not only supported existing rules designed to protect local media diversity, it also strengthened them. The former administration believed that allowing local stations to consolidate was stripping some cities of competing local newscasts, reducing diversity of voices on local stations, and shifting local broadcasting further away from its public service obligations.

Public policy groups have criticized deregulation efforts for decades, particularly the 1996 Telecom Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton. That legislation lifted ownership limits on radio stations, triggering a sweeping consolidation tsunami that allowed companies like iHeartMedia (formerly Clear Channel Communications) to build an empire of more than 1,200 stations nationwide (as many as eight stations in a single market) after a $30 billion spending blitz.

As a result of its heavy indebtedness, the company has struggled to pay back its $20 billion outstanding debt and has committed to multiple rounds of slashing expenses at its stations, resulting in dramatic cuts in local service and staff, and turning many of its stations into automated music jukeboxes with no local announcers or staff. Listener ratings declined as a result and on April 20, the company warned investors that it may not survive the next 10 months without bankruptcy reorganization protection. These groups worry consolidation will have a similar effect on free over-the-air TV’s sense of localism.

Ironically, Sinclair Broadcasting, now attempting to acquire the station portfolio owned by Tribune Media, will not be able to participate in the next wave of consolidation because it arguably has already broken another long-standing FCC rule prohibiting one company from owning over-the-air TV stations that reach more than 39% of the U.S. audience. That rule would not be changed as a consequence of the current deregulation proposals, but it would surprise no one to see Mr. Pai and Mr. O’Rielly attempt to repeal or modify it next year.

Pai and O’Rielly have been extremely critical of ownership restrictions in general. Pai has thus far advocated loosening local-TV limits, but O’Rielly has gone further calling for their complete repeal, arguing it “defies belief” that over-the-air stations have limits while they compete with “literally hundreds of competitive pay TV channels and essentially unlimited competitive internet content”

The Obama Administration argued the difference between over the air broadcasting and pay TV networks was primarily in their public service obligations. As a license holder, TV stations are required to provide service in the public interest in return for being granted a license to use the publicly owned airwaves. Since pay television networks do not use public property, they are not required to meet those obligations. Local stations, particularly those with local newsrooms, also have a long tradition of being critically important in times of public emergencies. Without an in-house staff, stations airing little or no local programming would be unlikely to continue that tradition.

Large TV owner conglomerates are already arranging financing for the impending station roundup. John Janedis, an analyst with Jeffries, told Bloomberg all of the larger TV station owners are eager for the relaxation of ownership rules so they can purchase their peers.

“The reality is everyone is talking to everybody,” Janedis said. “There are a lot of buyers out there.”

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