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Viacom, Booted Off Some Basic TV Tiers, Plans Own $10-20 Non-Sports TV Package

Viacom, which owns cable networks including Comedy Central, Nickelodeon, MTV, BET, and TV Land, will launch a cheap non-sports bundle of entertainment cable networks viewable online for $10-20 a month this year.

Viacom has lost basic cable viewers at an accelerating rate as cable operators drop their networks or repackage them in more expensive basic tiers as Viacom raises wholesale rates cable companies pay to carry the channels.

Viacom CEO Bob Bakish talked about the new service this morning at the J.P. Morgan Global Technology, Media and Telecom Conference in Boston. Bakish said most of the current “skinny cable TV” bundles were priced at around $40 a month, which is too expensive to attract “cord-never millennials” that frequently don’t subscribe to cable television.

“The transformational opportunity is to bring in a new entry segment at a much lower price point,” Bakish said. The cable industry needs “a path to bring in someone who wants high-quality entertainment” but has no interest in expensive sports networks.

That is why Bakish wants to create a cheap entertainment-oriented bundle of networks that omits sports-related channels. But Bakish has also repeatedly stressed he has no intention of giving consumers a comprehensive online alternative to traditional cable TV, telling investors Viacom is “not creating inexpensive opportunities to serve as an alternative.”

Bloomberg News reported Viacom was talking to Discovery and AMC Networks about participating in the new service. The only complication may be a backlash from sports programmers like Walt Disney’s ESPN and 21st Century Fox, Inc., which have contracts requiring providers to include the sports networks in their most popular bundles. Some contracts even limit how many customers are permitted to sign up for a sports-free TV package, according to Michael Nathanson, an analyst at MoffettNathanson LLC.

“It’s meant to dissuade distributors from doing something like this,” Nathanson told Bloomberg. “The issue is how many subscribers they can have before the legal questions appear.”

Bakish may also be trying to remind cable and satellite companies that Viacom can always go direct-to-consumers if operators banish Viacom’s networks off the cable dial or move them to a more expensive tier, although there is no guarantee the new service will bundle all of Viacom’s networks.

Viacom has seen its relationships with cable and satellite providers deteriorate over the last few years under prior management. Some smaller cable companies including Cable One dropped Viacom channels from their cable systems over cost issues in 2014, and many more subscribers have seen Viacom networks temporarily dropped as a result of contract renewal disputes. Bakish has made repairing relations with cable and satellite customers a priority since taking over as CEO in December, but he still has a way to go.

Recently, Charter Communications moved Viacom networks out of its Select basic cable TV package and moved them to its most expensive Gold package for new customers. With only a minority of customers signed up for Gold service, Viacom networks could eventually lose millions of viewers as Time Warner Cable and Bright House customers adopt Spectrum packages in the next few years. If those customers do not subscribe to Gold or refuse to pay extra for a “digipak” of Gold’s basic channels without the premium networks, they will lose access to Viacom channels when they change TV plans.

That issue also concerns Wall Street analysts who believe it could eventually erode Viacom’s viewer base. Bakish made certain to tell investors Viacom was not surrendering to Charter’s “re-tiering.”

“We firmly don’t believe they have the rights to do that,” Bakish said. “We’ve been in discussions with them. We’ve got to get that resolved.”

If it is resolved, those networks may again be available to Select TV customers.

Viacom, AMC, and Discovery are partnering up to offer a $10-20 entertainment-only package on streaming basic cable networks for consumers, as this Bloomberg News story reports. (2:58)

Wall Street Analyst: Cable Monopoly Will Double Your Broadband Bill

Thought paying $65 a month for broadband service is too much? Just wait a few years when one Wall Street analyst predicts you will be paying twice that rate for internet access, all because the cable industry is gradually achieving a high-speed broadband monopoly.

Jonathan Chaplin, New Street Research analyst, predicts as a result of cord-cutting and the retreat of phone companies from offering high-speed internet service competition, the cable industry will win as much as 72.2% of the broadband market by the year 2020. With it, they also win the power to raise prices both fast and furiously.

In a note to investors, Chapin wrote the number of Americans left to sign up for broadband service for the first time has dwindled, and most of the rest of new customer additions will come at the expense of phone companies, especially those still selling nothing better than DSL.

“Our long-term penetration forecast is predicated on cable increasing its market share, given a strong network advantage in 70% of the country (this assumes that telco fiber deployment increases from 16% of the country today to close to 30% five years from now),” Chaplin wrote.

Cable companies already control 65% of the U.S. broadband market as of late last year. Chaplin points out large cable operators have largely given up on slapping usage caps and usage pricing on broadband service to replace revenue lost from TV cord-cutting, so now they are likely going to raise general broadband pricing on everyone.

“Comcast and Charter have given up on usage-based pricing for now; however, we expect them to continue annual price increases,” Chaplin said. “As the primary source of value to households shifts increasingly from pay-TV to broadband, we would expect the cable companies to reflect more of the annual rate increases they push through on their bundles to be reflected in broadband than in the past. Interestingly, Comcast is now pricing standalone broadband at $85 for their flagship product, which is a $20 premium to the rack rate bundled price.”

Chaplin himself regularly cheerleads cable operators to do exactly as he predicts: raise prices. Back in late 2015, Chaplin pestered then CEO Robert Marcus of Time Warner Cable about why TWC was avoiding data caps, and in June of that year, Chaplin sent a note to investors claiming broadband was too cheap.

“Our analysis suggests that broadband as a product is underpriced,” Chaplin wrote. new street research“Our work suggests that cable companies have room to take up broadband pricing significantly and we believe regulators should not oppose the re-pricing (it is good for competition & investment).”

“The companies will undoubtedly have to take pay-TV pricing down to help ‘fund’ the price increase for broadband, but this is a good thing for the business,” Chaplin added. “Post re-pricing, [online video] competition would cease to be a threat and the companies would grow revenue and free cash flow at a far faster rate than they would otherwise.”

Spectrum Auction: T-Mobile Runaway Winner, But Dish Buy Puzzles Investors

T-Mobile’s 600MHz coverage map — assuming it builds out its full spectrum purchase.

One of the most consequential and visible spectrum auctions ever is over, and it will have a significant impact on broadcasters, wireless carriers, and the future competitive landscape of the wireless industry.

The world’s first “incentive auction” paid television stations to voluntarily vacate or move their assigned channels to make room for the wireless industry’s desire for more spectrum to power wireless data services. Up for bid was 70MHz of spectrum currently used by UHF television stations. A total of 50 winning wireless bidders collectively agreed to pay $19.8 billion to acquire that space. The biggest winner was T-Mobile USA, which is paying almost half the amount of total proceeds to acquire 45% of the spectrum available in the current auction. T-Mobile managed to acquire enough spectrum to cover 100% of the United States and Puerto Rico with an average of 31MHz of available spectrum nationwide, quadrupling its current inventory of important “low-band” spectrum, which is excellent for covering rural areas and inside buildings.

Consumers are likely to benefit as early as later this year when T-Mobile begins lighting up cellular service utilizing the newly available spectrum. Unfortunately, customers will have to buy new devices compatible with the new bands of frequencies.

Having the spectrum alone is not enough to beef up T-Mobile’s network. The company will have to invest in a large number of new cell sites, particularly in outlying areas, to eventually rival the coverage of AT&T and Verizon Wireless. But with an ample supply of 600MHz spectrum, T-Mobile could soon challenge AT&T and Verizon Wireless’ perceived network and coverage superiority. After this auction, AT&T continues to hold the largest portfolio of <1GHz spectrum — 70.5MHz. Verizon is second with 46.2MHz and T-Mobile has moved up in its third place position with 41.1MHz.

Although the FCC claims the current auction was among the highest grossing ever conducted by the FCC, industry observers claim companies got the new frequencies at a bargain price. A 2015 spectrum auction attracted $44.9 billion in bids, more than double the amount bid this year. The average price wireless companies paid per megahertz per person this year was just shy of 90¢, compared with $2.72 in 2015.

Where bargains are to be had, Charles Ergen and his Dish Network satellite company are sure to follow.

Few companies have as much unused wireless spectrum in their portfolio as Dish. Ergen loves to bid in auctions and has also picked up excess spectrum available on the cheap from other satellite companies that have since gone dark or bankrupt. Dish spent $6.2 billion on spectrum during the latest auction, puzzling investors who drove Dish’s share price down wondering what the company intends to do with the frequencies.

Investors were hoping Dish would eventually sell its spectrum portfolio at a profit, something that could still happen if other wireless carriers see a deal to be made. But some Wall Street analysts fear Dish might actually build a large wireless network of its own to offer wireless broadband service. Wall Street dislikes big spending projects and the competition it could bring to the marketplace, potentially driving down prices.

The other possibility is that Dish is making itself look more attractive to a possible buyer like Verizon, which could acquire the satellite company to win cheaper cable programming prices for its FiOS TV and an attractive amount of wireless spectrum for Verizon Wireless. The nation’s biggest wireless carrier notably did not participate in this spectrum auction.

Another unusual bidder was Comcast. Craig Moffett from Wall Street firm MoffettNathanson called Comcast’s $1.7 billion bid “half-hearted” and said it was unlikely to be enough spectrum for the company to begin offering its own wireless service. Comcast plans to rely on Verizon Wireless to power its wireless service, at least initially.

Comcast targeted its bids only in cities where it already provides cable service, which also nixes the theory Comcast and Charter might have been working together to form a cellular joint venture. Moffett expected Comcast would seek at least 20MHz of spectrum across most of the country. It ended up with 10MHz and only in select cities. Moffett thinks that may signal Comcast’s interest in buying an existing wireless carrier is still on the table.

Drahi’s Acquisition Quest ’17 – Altice Could Seek Up to 30% Of U.S. Telecom Market

Patrick Drahi

“If he can succeed with a corporate-friendly Trump Administration and his lackey Republican legislators and regulators, Patrick Drahi’s Altice could seek to own or control up to 30% of the American telecoms market,” said A.W. Dewalle, a researcher studying Altice’s unprecedented acquisition-frenzy across the world’s telecommunications marketplace. “His IPO in the land of Uncle Sam is just the first shot and it will make a lot of executives very rich and consolidate America’s cable industry.”

Wall Street banks are clamoring for a piece of Altice’s initial public offering, announced this week. The big winners, who will split substantial fees paid to advise Altice USA, are Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, Morgan Stanley and Citi. The IPO will allow the Drahi-controlled Altice USA to raise money for further acquisitions in the United States and to potentially restructure its existing debt, run up acquiring Cablevision and Suddenlink.

Reuters reported that Drahi’s biggest U.S. shareholders — BC Partners and the Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board will use the IPO as an opportunity to sell some of their combined 30% stake in Altice USA, giving Drahi further assurance he will stay firmly in control of the American operation as he takes on new investors.

Les Echos reports Drahi’s pattern is a familiar one for a man in a hurry to take a much bigger stake in the American telecom market, where profits are high and competition is relatively low. By raising additional funds, Altice USA can show financial strength as it appeals to bankers to loan it the billions in will need to acquire existing cable (and potentially phone) companies. If Altice uses some of the money to repay its existing $20 billion U.S. debt, that could also win the company favorable interest rates on its future loan portfolio.

Drahi is an acquisition specialist, having bought more than 30 companies to add to his Altice portfolio since its start in 2002. Low interest rates, favorable banking terms and corporate deregulation have fueled the shopping spree. With the election of Donald Trump in the U.S., Altice is convinced the sky is the limit when it comes to mergers and acquisitions.

“Everything about his government and the people he has put in place at regulatory agencies says deregulation, ‘laissez-faire,’ and consumers beware,” said Dewalle, a point echoed in part by the Financial Times.

The election of Donald Trump has lifted expectations among chief executives that it will be easier to consolidate companies in the telecoms, media and technology (TMT) sector, as the Republican president has a more laissez-faire approach towards competition. Many media and telecom players are under pressure to boost margins and find new growth avenues, while facing declining sales, according to a senior banker in the industry. “M&A might be the only option for many companies in this sector and Altice will certainly try to play a big role in this,” said [one] banker.

Altice is already laying the public relations groundwork to convince skeptical legislators and regulators that an Altice buyout is not bad news for customers. Altice is spending millions to scrap Cablevision’s existing hybrid coax-fiber network for a 100% fiber to the home replacement. Other upgrades are also ongoing across Suddenlink’s footprint.

Because the American telecom marketplace is not nearly as competitive as the one Altice faces in Europe, Americans are accustomed to paying for broadband and television services at prices that would be scandalous in France. The excess profits earned in America can help Altice finance fiber upgrades in its more competitive European markets. Altice confirmed this week it planned to invest more in 4G wireless upgrades for its SFR division in France and will cover 22 million French homes with fiber to the home service by 2022 and 5.3 million homes in Portugal by 2020.

How big will Mr. Drahi seek to get in the United States? He testified before the Economic Affairs Committee of the French Senate last June, telling legislators he owns or controls about one-third of the French telecom market. In the United States, he controls just 2%, leaving plenty of room to grow.

French business experts predict Drahi will initially seek to sweep up the remaining independent cable operators in the States into the Altice empire before turning attention to a big player like Comcast or Charter Communications, the largest and second-largest American cable operator respectively. Publicly traded companies like Cable ONE would be the first prime targets for an Altice buyout. But Drahi could also repeat his Cablevision acquisition by offering a premium price for privately held operators like Cox Communications, which has a presence in larger cities, and Mediacom — which provides service in 23 states and has a big presence in the midwest.

Most of the rest of America’s independent cable operators are small, regional operations serving smaller communities. Drahi has his choice of these kinds of operators that include Adams Cable, Armstrong, Atlantic Broadband (owned by Canada’s Cogeco), Blue Ridge Communications, Buckeye Broadband, Hargray, Midco, Northland, Service Electric, TruVista, Wave Broadband (exploring a sale), and WOW, among others.

Thus far, Drahi has not shown much interest in acquiring telephone companies, so analysts expect him to confine his acquisitions to the cable business. Even if Drahi acquires a substantial cable portfolio in the United States, he will argue he still faces competition from telephone companies in those same service areas. What Drahi won’t do is compete from the ground up by building a competitive cable system to face off against a firmly entrenched American duopoly.

“That would be bad for business,” said Dewalle.

Wide Open West Will Be Wide Open to Merger/Takeover After Launching IPO

Phillip Dampier March 27, 2017 Competition, Consumer News, Editorial & Site News, WOW! 1 Comment

One of America’s handful of cable overbuilders that provide competing cable television service will be ripe for an acquisition or merger after launching an initial public offering that could raise as much as $750 million and make them a juicy target for a takeover.

WideOpenWest, which customers know better as WOW!, provides almost a half-million customers in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Ohio, South Carolina and Tennessee with a choice of a second cable company. It has consistently won reasonably high scores in ratings issued by Consumer Reports and often offers better speed and service than incumbent providers. WOW has been quietly and slowly expanding service, but in the last two years has attracted the interest of private equity firms and Wall Street banks. One of those equity firms — Crestview Partners, invested $125 million in WOW 18 months ago. UBS Investment Bank and Credit Suisse have teamed up to manage the IPO.

Jeff Marcus, who also happens to be a partner in Crestview, has been named chairman of WOW. Avista Capital Partners still owns almost 60% of the company.

By entering the public market, WOW could quickly come under pressure from Wall Street analysts to get out of the cable business by selling the company and profiting investors. The drumbeat for mergers and acquisitions has only intensified with a corporate-friendly Trump Administration that has sought to appoint “hands-off” regulators at the FCC and Justice Department. There are several likely buyers — the various cable companies that face direct competition from WOW and would like shut the company down and upstarts like Altice, which has targeted smaller cable operators like Cablevision and Suddenlink.

Marcus has telegraphed he is isn’t in a hurry to spend investors’ money, which could leave WOW flush with cash, something else attractive in a takeover. Multichannel News reports that one of WOW’s “main directives” would be to offer “video, voice, and data services in packages that consumers want,” — hardly a revolutionary concept. In a July interview, Marcus made it clear there was ‘no burning need to increase scale.’ That tells would-be buyers the company hasn’t any immediate plans to spend a lot of money or expand service, things that could drive away some buyers.

“It’s all opportunistic,” Marcus said. “When I started Marcus Cable with 18,000 subscribers, I had no idea that it would get to 1.3 million. One thing led to another and we took advantage of opportunities as they presented themselves. I think that’s what is going to happen here.“

A wealth opportunity for Marcus would be collecting significant proceeds selling the operation. There is a good chance WOW will either buy other companies or be bought itself as the cable industry consolidation wave continues. Other operators about its size — Cable ONE and until recently NewWave Communications, have been considered takeover targets for years. NewWave was acquired by CableONE in January for $735 million in cash, coincidentally slightly less than the potential upper limit of WOW’s proceeds from an IPO.

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  • Mike D.: And for those who are planning to "cut the cord" after a promotion expires, be aware that Charter is lobbying the new administration and FCC chairman ...
  • Dylan: Huh, that's interesting regarding that Spectrum only saves 3/10 of its customers. Maybe there is something going on. And regarding my own promotion -...
  • Phillip Dampier: You were not on a promotion before which is why you got one this time. One year from now when your bill spikes and you call and complain, they will te...
  • Dylan: It's not that hard to get new customer pricing from Spectrum. I used to be a TWC customer paying $65/mo for 50 Mbps down internet. Once Spectrum came...
  • NM: Phillip, You may be interested in today's online story in Syracuse.com about what Spectrum's customers in CNY think about the merged company: http://...
  • Jim J: Dial tone is dial tone....
  • Julia: Even in life after TWC, if customer complaints remain the same or if a customer service rep claimed to have fixed a problem, but really didn't, you ca...
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