These debt positions are often still within the applicable limits.
The great attack by the super-rich Silicon Valley companies on traditional media organizations is taking epic proportions. Apple + is the latest addition to all the initiatives from the famous San Francisco valley: for the Cupertino company, this investment is of some strategic nature, but on the balance sheet of the company a piece of cake.
The answer of the traditional media industry (to which I also originally assign distribution companies such as Comcast) is scaling up. The deals in recent months have been unprecedented: Disney acquired Fox, AT&T bought Time Warner, Comcast acquired Universal a few years ago and most recently Sky.
Multiple deals are still in the works, Mediaset, for example, is building a significant stake in ProSiebenSat1. The result of all this? The debt of the acquiring companies is growing to alarming levels. The SEC in the US published the debts of these companies in the middle of this year. Sony and Viacom are still refraining from large transactions and have debt positions to be used (USD 5.2 and 9 billion respectively). But others are building massive debt positions: Disney $ 57 billion, Comcast $ 101 billion, and AT&T, $ 170 billion!
Now money is unimaginably cheap right now, so now is the time for these types of transactions. These debt positions are often still within the applicable limits. These are usually calculated as the ratio of the debt position (minus cash) to the profitability of the organization (usually expressed as the EBITDA figure). In almost all cases, this figure remains below 4 for these companies. But when times change, interest rates rise and profits shrink during a recession, Leiden is immediately in trouble. In short, Hollywood takes a fair amount of risk.
A good example of what debt can do to a company is Endemol. Before and after the merger with Shine, the company was crammed with debt by its owners. The debt position was approximately $ 1.8 billion, giving a ratio of approximately 10. A company can simply no longer pay the interest on this type of debt. The result of such a situation is that in these circumstances companies cannot invest enough to grow and expand the position. Banijay is now taking over the debts of EndemolShine and, if not careful, will also take (too) great a risk.
Those risks can only be accounted for if the acquirer has a clear strategy and rigorously implements this strategy. Disney seems to have done that: the company will immediately serve the consumer (with which it already has experience via the theme parks) with its range of VOD brands. The launch of Disney + was successful despite the necessary flaws and ESPN (Disney's sports brand) also seems to be doing well. The company is managed very tightly and will survive despite the great risks.
But in many other cases, the focus is only on the transaction and the top of the organization forgets the execution. The lesson of practice is that many takeovers are not that successful at all and end in failure. Usually this is simply due to the execution: management is a craft and that is sometimes lacking in the media. Formulating a clear plan of action and then executing it is not at all sexy and is often forgotten. In those cases, a mountain of debt really becomes a problem!
One of the biggest threats to media organizations is the churn rate, the extent to which consumers end their relationship with a media company. For years, the term was only used in pay-TV, but lately it can be seen in a much broader context. It is the silent killer behind the performance of media companies: after all, everyone likes to report a growing customer base and then churn is the big enemy.
A special form of churn is the decreasing viewing time of linear television. We know of course that viewing time of the traditional consumer is decreasing, a deadly development for 'ordinary' linear television. The biggest danger is that there are also few new viewers, because young people turn away from television. The rinsing is getting thinner and thinner. Broadcasters therefore started developing on-demand initiatives a long time ago. But for the time being, commercial broadcasters are still enjoying the enormous recovery of the advertising market. And as it goes, that reduces the urgency to change quickly.
Distribution companies must deal with churn too. They give this phenomenon the name cord cutting: the extent to which consumers watch media 'over-the-top' and refrain from cable subscriptions. This phenomenon is particularly noticeable in the United States, but it is also beginning to gain foothold in Europe. Because young people tend to turn to over-the-top, churn in the distribution world is starting to hurt. However, the operating margins of cable companies are so enormous that they continue to yield good returns in the short term, and here too this means that there is no need for major change in the short term.
In the VOD markets, churn is obviously the biggest threat. After all, the business model is often based on subscriptions, similar to the model of pay-TV. With the increase in the number of providers, churn is becoming an increasing risk. Acquiring new customers is a costly affair, which is why retaining existing customers is of vital importance. Netflix and Disney seem to be succeeding quite well in retaining customers, but it is questionable whether other providers will also succeed. With some new VOD platforms, the number of new customers is disappointing: the first hairline cracks are already noticeable at providers such as French Salto, German Joyn and Flemish Streamz. The shareholders of the first two companies are already openly doubting whether they should not get out now.
What media companies should do above all is increase the stickyness of their products: captivate customers so much that they do not think about running away. For broadcasters, this is possible through live events, blockbusters, urgent programming, with distribution companies through excellent service and high bandwidths and with VOD providers through exclusive programming, an intuitive and personal viewing experience and sophisticated marketing. The solutions are there: now let’s see who can put this in practice!
In the early part of the millennium, Canadian author Malcolm Gladwell wrote an interesting book about the Tipping Point. He argued how major social changes were preceded by small steps, which suddenly gain momentum. An interesting analytical thought that of course also applies to the media world.
Revolutionary changes have occurred many times in media. A good example is the decline of the large networks in the United States: these money-making machines were suddenly surpassed in the 90s by the many small cable channels. This development is beautifully documented in the classic book Three Blind Mice. The cable channels started small, but in this millennium grew beyond the big channels. A true turning point!
Another good example is the development of the advertising market in the recent decade. Television had already surpassed print at the beginning of this century, but in turn was gradually overtaken by digital. Google and Facebook grew fast and quickly caught up with television. The turning point was in the middle of the previous decade when digital overtook linear television. It caused a huge shift in the advertising landscape, where the digital players with their fantastic targeting capabilities became the preferred advertising medium.
The question is what the current situation is regarding consumer viewing behavior. It is clear that young people hardly watch linear television anymore. Many do not have a cable or satellite connection and turn to the internet for all video consumption. Video-on-demand and all sorts of other video snacks, especially on YouTube, are preferred. Instagram and Snapchat are in the spotlight. In addition, many 'elderly' people also see the benefits of VOD. Delayed viewing takes off, but with a little good will, it can still be classified as linear television. However, SVOD and AVOD are also increasingly preferred by this target group. Worldwide, the number of SVOD subscriptions will grow from 1.2 billion to 1.6 billion in the next 3 years. Linear television is also going well: the public broadcasters achieved good viewing results in the COVID disaster year 2020, and commercial broadcasters have one of their best years in 2021.
However, as mentioned above, it is undeniable that on demand is the future. 25% of viewing behaviour in the Netherlands is on demand according to the latest analyses by SKO. Linear television will lose importance over time. It is not for nothing that the RTL group came up with a new meaning for TV a number of years ago: RTL no longer sees TV as Television, but as Total Video. Interesting point remains when the Tipping Point will take place: when will video on demand become more important than linear television? Step by step VOD is gaining ground and it is only a question of time when it will overtake linear television. Many at the broadcasters think that this is still at some distance in the future. But for them the message could be tough: the Tipping Pont is already behind us!
It is by now extremely clear that Big Tech is forcing the media world to change. Google and Facebook have been conquering the advertising market at an unimaginable pace for a decade, and Netflix in particular has shown the way to the new way of television viewing. The consequences are enormous, and that awareness is all too present in the boardrooms of media companies today. The example of the music industry, which has finally re-established itself after many years of crisis, speaks volumes. Under pressure everything becomes liquid, and that means that the media companies are prepared to take very drastic steps.
After all, almost all 'traditional' media companies are under pressure. The broadcasters (whether they are public or commercial) have to fight for the young viewer, who increasingly ignores television. The commercial broadcasters have to fight for their advertising share, because digital/online is growing fast, while television is stagnating. And at the ever very profitable cable companies, dark clouds are also starting to loom in the sky: cord cutting is already an important phenomenon in the United States and the first signs of this are also surfacing in Europe. In short, all traditional players see their activities threatened.
The way in which this is responded to is different. The online VOD initiatives of media companies tumble over each other: from Disney+ to Peacock, from Videoland to Streamz, from Joyn to Discovery+, from Viaplay to Paramount+, the number of new initiatives is almost over the top. Public broadcasters are also involved in the fight with mostly local initiatives. But by far the most important development is that media companies will defend themselves by working together on a large scale; the merger initiatives fly around our ears.
Amazon's acquisition of MGM is of course of a different nature, but it does indicate that the panels are definitively shifting. The biggest news this year was that AT&T decided to divest Warner Media, which had just been purchased a year earlier, and merge with Discovery.
Super interesting is also what happened in France. The eternal rivals TF1 and M6 decided to merge. This is the ultimate signal that things-are-a-changing, because until recently the leaders of these companies were still competing heavily. In apparently perfect harmony, a groundbreaking deal was forged, which was undoubtedly sanctioned by the top of French politics early in trial in the Elysée Palace. L'exception Française isn't it? Soon thereafter, the merger between Talpa and RTL in the Netherlands was announced. There is no doubt that a similar exercise is on the cards in Germany, which would really be significant.
The conclusion: consolidation in the media world is starting to gain pace. The threats of Big Tech have led to a new phenomenon: the development of Big Media!