Strikes, streaming losses, ad slump


Striking Writers Guild of America (WGA) members walk the picket line in front of Netflix offices as SAG-AFTRA union announced it had agreed to a ‘last-minute request’ by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers for federal mediation, but it refused to again extend its existing labor contract past the 11:59 p.m. Wednesday negotiating deadline, in Los Angeles, California, July 12, 2023.

Mike Blake | Reuters

Traditional TV is dying. Ad revenue is soft. Streaming isn’t profitable. And Hollywood is practically shut down as the actors and writers unions settle in for what is shaping up to be a long and bitter work stoppage.

All of this turmoil will be on investors’ minds as the media industry kicks off its earnings season this week, with Netflix up first on Wednesday.

Netflix, with a new advertising model and push to stop password sharing, looks the best positioned compared to legacy media giants. Last week, for instance, Disney CEO Bob Iger extended his contract through 2026, telling the market he needed more time at the Mouse House to address the challenges before him. At the top of the list is contending with Disney’s TV networks, as that part of the business appears to be in a worse state than Iger had imagined. “They may not be core to Disney,” he said.

“I think Bob Iger’s comments were a warning about the quarter. I think they are very worrying for the sector,” said analyst Michael Nathanson of SVB MoffettNathanson following Iger’s interview with CNBC’s David Faber on Thursday.

Although the soft advertising market has been weighing on the industry for some quarters now, the recent introduction of a cheaper, ad-supported option for services like Netflix and Disney+ will likely be one bright spot as one of the few areas of growth and concentration this quarter, Nathanson said.

Iger has talked at length in recent investor calls and Thursday’s interview about how advertising is part of the plan to bring Disney+ to profitability. Others, including Netflix, have echoed the same sentiment.

Netflix will report earnings after the close Wednesday. Wall Street will be keen to hear more details about the rollout of its password sharing crackdown in the U.S. and state of its newly launched ad-supported option. The company’s stock is up nearly 50% this year, after a correction in 2022 that followed its first subscriber loss in a decade

Investor focus will also be on legacy media companies like Paramount Global, Comcast Corp. and Warner Bros. Discovery, which each have significant portfolios of pay-TV networks, following Iger’s comments that traditional TV “may not be core” to the company and all options, including a sale, were on the table. These companies and Disney will report earnings in the weeks ahead.

Strike woes

Scene from “Squid Game” by Netflix

Source: Netflix

Just a week ahead of the earnings kickoff, members of The Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists joined the more than 11,000 already-striking film and television writers on the picket line.

The strike – a result of the failed negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers – brings the industry to an immediate halt. It’s the first dual strike of this kind since 1960.

The labor fight blew up just as the industry has moved away from streaming growth at all costs. Media companies saw a boost in subscribers – and stock prices – earlier in the pandemic, investing billions in new content. But growth has since stagnated, resulting in budget cuts and layoffs.

“The strike happening suggests this is a sector in tremendous turmoil,” said Mark Boidman, head of media and entertainment investment banking at Solomon Partners. He noted shareholders, particularly hedge funds and institutional investors, have been “very frustrated” with media companies.

Iger told CNBC last week the stoppage couldn’t occur at a worse time, noting “disruptive forces on this business and all the challenges that we’re facing,” on top of the industry still recovering from the pandemic.

These are the first strikes of their kind during the streaming era. The last writers strike occurred in 2007 and 2008, which went on for about 14 weeks and gave rise to unscripted, reality TV. Hollywood writers have already been on strike since early May of this year.

Depending on the longevity of the strike, fresh film and TV content could dry up and leave streaming platforms and TV networks – other than library content, live sports and news – bare.

For Netflix, the strikes may have a lesser effect, at least in the near-term, Insider Intelligence analyst Ross Benes said. Content made outside the U.S. isn’t affected by the strike — an area where Netflix has heavily invested.

“Netflix is poised to do better than most because they produce shows so well in advance. And if push comes to shove, they can rely on international shows, of which they have so many,” said Benes. “Netflix is the antagonist in the eyes of strikes because of how it changed the economics of what writers get paid.”

Traditional TV doom

The decline of pay-TV subscribers, which has ramped up in recent quarters, should continue to accelerate as consumers increasingly shift toward streaming.

Yet, despite the rampant decline, many networks remain cash cows, and they also supply content to other parts of the business — particularly streaming.

For pay-TV distributors, hiking the price of cable bundles has been a method of staying profitable. But, according to a recent report from MoffettNathanson, “the quantity of subscribers is falling far too fast for pricing to continue to offset.”

Iger, who began his career in network TV, told CNBC last week that while he already had a “very pessimistic” view of traditional TV before his return in November, he has since found it’s even worse than he expected. The executive said Disney is assessing its network portfolio, which includes broadcaster ABC and cable channels like FX, indicating a sale could be on the table.

Paramount is currently considering a sale of a majority stake in its cable-TV network BET. In recent years Comcast’s NBCUniversal has shuttered networks like NBC Sports and combined sports programming on other channels like USA Network.

“The networks are a dwindling business, and Wall Street doesn’t like dwindling businesses,” said Nathanson. “But for some companies, there’s no way around it.”

Making matters worse, the weak advertising market has been a source of pain, particularly for traditional TV. It weighed on the earnings of Paramount and Warner Bros. Discovery in recent quarters, each of which have big portfolios of cable networks.

Advertising pricing growth, which has long offset audience declines, is a key source of concern, according to MoffettNathanson’s recent report. The firm noted that this could be the first non-recessionary year that advertising upfronts don’t produce increases in TV pricing, especially as ad-supported streaming hits the market and zaps up inventory.

Streamers’ introduction of cheaper, ad-supported tiers will be a hot topic once again this quarter, especially after Netflix and Disney+ announced their platforms late last year.

“The soft advertising market affects everyone, but I don’t think Netflix is as affected as the TV companies or other established advertising streamers,” said Benes. He noted while Netflix is the most established streamer, its ad tier is new and has plenty of room for growth.

Advertising is now considered an important mechanism in platforms’ broader efforts to reach profitability.

“It’s not a coincidence that Netflix suddenly became judicious about freeloaders while pushing a cheaper tier that has advertising,” said Benes, referring to Netflix’s crackdown on password sharing. “That’s pretty common in the industry. Hulu’s ad plan gets more revenue per user than the plan without advertising.”

Are more mergers coming?

Last week’s ruling from a federal judge that Microsoft’s $68.7 billion acquisition of game publisher Activision Blizzard should move forward serves as a rare piece of good news for the media industry. It’s a signal that significant consolidation can proceed even if there’s temporary regulatory interference.

Although the Federal Trade Commission appealed the ruling, bankers took it as a win for dealmaking during a slow period for megadeals.

“This was a nice win for bankers to go into board rooms and say we’re not in an environment where really attractive M&A is going to be shot down by regulators. It’s encouraging,” said Solomon Partners’ Boidman.

As media giants struggle and shareholders grow frustrated, the judge’s ruling could fuel more deals as “a lot of these CEOs are on the defensive,” Boidman added.

Regulatory roadblocks have been prevalent beyond the Microsoft deal. A federal judge shut down book publisher Penguin Random House’s proposed purchase of Paramount’s Simon & Schuster last year. Broadcast station owner Tegna scrapped its sale to Standard General this year due to regulatory pushback.

“The fact that we are so focused on the Activision-Microsoft deal is indicative of a reality that dealmaking is going to be an enormous tool going forward to solidify market position and jump your company inorganically in ways you couldn’t do yourself,” said Jason Anderson, CEO of Quire, a boutique investment bank.

These CEOs won’t just do a deal to do a deal. From this point forward, it will take a higher bar to consolidate.

Peter Liguori

former Tribune Media CEO

Anderson noted bankers are always thinking about regulatory pushback, however, and it shouldn’t necessarily be the reason deals don’t come together.

Warner Bros. and Discovery merged in 2022, ballooning the combined company’s portfolio of cable networks and bringing together its streaming platforms. Recently, the company relaunched its flagship service as Max, merging content from Discovery+ and HBO Max. Amazon bought MGM the same year.

Other megadeals occurred before that, too. Comcast acquired U.K. broadcaster Sky in 2018. The next year, Disney paid $71 billion for Fox Corp.’s entertainment assets – which gave Disney “The Simpsons” and a controlling stake in Hulu, but makes up a small portion of its TV properties.

“The Simpsons”: Homer and Marge

Getty / FOX

“The Street and prognosticators forget that Comcast and Sky, Disney and Fox, Warner and Discovery —happened just a few years ago. But the industry talks as if these deals happened in BC not AD times,” said Peter Liguori, the former CEO of Tribune Media who’s a board member at TV measurement firm VideoAmp.

Consolidation is likely to continue once companies are finished working through these past mergers and get past lingering effects of the pandemic, such as increased spending to gain subscribers, he said. “These CEOs won’t just do a deal to do a deal. From this point forward, it will take a higher bar to consolidate.”

Still, with the rise of streaming and its lack of profitability and bleeding of pay-TV customers, more consolidation could be on the way, no matter what.

Whether M&A helps push these companies forward, however, is another question.

“My kneejerk reaction to the Activision-Microsoft ruling was there’s going to be more M&A if the FTC is going to be defanged,” Nathanson said. “But truth be told, Netflix built its business with licensing content and not having to buy an asset. I’m not really sure the big transactions to buy studios have worked out.”

–CNBC’s Alex Sherman contributed to this article.

Disclosure: Comcast owns NBCUniversal, the parent company of CNBC.



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