Reality Check For Sustainable Business Models

CBS could reveal the most drastic financial fallout yet of any television network company. But all video-related media players should be scrutinizing the sustainability of their business models that are painfully challenged by digital and economic retrenchment.

Time for a reality check. You know your business model is in trouble when ...

--revenues and free cash flow recede and profits evaporate

CBS might survive as a general cable network with a second revenue stream from subscriber fees, but will struggle to stay alive as an ad-supported broadcast network. With Bernstein Research forecasting at least a 6% decline in CBS TV Network revenues, a 26% decline in TV stations' revenues and a 10% drop in syndication and home entertainment revenues, any gains from retransmission fees, Showtime, CSTV and interactive will not fully offset the losses.

Plus, accelerating weakness and changing dynamics in local advertising are killing CBS' TV station, radio and outdoor businesses. Along with publishing, these segments pushed fourth-quarter earnings down more than 40%; CBS is expected to report Feb. 18.



Barclays Capital warns that the resulting liquidity squeeze that could see free cash flow plunge 81% to $133 million in 2009 will require a slashed dividend as CBS strains to refinance $1.6 billion in debt by mid-2010.

For the record, all broadcast TV networks will be losing propositions this year in the face of rising content costs, fragmented audiences and plummeting ad revenues. ABC's broadcast segment operating income fell 60% to $138 million on about a 20% decline in revenues last quarter from the prior year, spurred by lower network ratings and a 15% decline in TV station ad dollars.

The Fox TV Network is expected to post high single- to-low-double-digit losses in fiscal 2009. Surely, the NBC TV Network will be hard-pressed for profits with NBC Universal's overall operating income expected to dive 16% to $2.6 billion on a 14% decline in revenues to $15 billion this year, analysts say. As broadcast network and TV stations go, so goes cable, filmed entertainment and theme parks these days.

--there is no salvation in live big events and national elections

NBC's recent Super Bowl telecast averaged 95.4 million and $206 million in advertising revenues. More than 100 million viewers initially watched all or part of the Super Bowl game and its commercials online--making advertisers the big winner. The networks and other mainstream media are big losers as long as consumers increasingly watch their content on Internet-connected devices and platforms without effective measurement or monetization.

While Nielsen and Disney research deems that consumers must tolerate double the ad load in a full-length TV program online, no one has designed a dashboard for selling, pricing and placing ads across the digital media spectrum and then stretching them into electronic transactions or micropayments.

Likewise, last year's presidential election was a bigger hit on cable and online (where presidential campaigns are won) than on broadcast television. ABC-owned TV stations' ad revenues declined 15% despite the presidential election last quarter, and are expected to decline 21% from the prior year for fiscal 2009, due to lower ratings and the recession. The ABC TV Network ad revenues declined more than 20% (excluding political ads). Even with the political bump, fiscal-year operating income for Disney's entire broadcasting segment will decline as much as 48%, analysts estimate. Broadcast peers tell a similar story.

--content ROI flat-lines or worse in prime time and online

The industry's sky-high production costs and license fees, and the inability to generate enough revenues to more than offset them, create negative operating leverage. New Corp.'s television division lost $356 million in profits and $432 million in revenues for a negative incremental margin of 82% in the first half of fiscal 2009, points out Bernstein analyst Michael Nathanson. TV station advertising is down 30%; network upfront cancellations will top 11%.

Credit Suisse analyst Spencer Wang says that Fox TV stations' revenues will fall 34% and earnings will fall 84.5% due to negative operating leverage (including the sale of eight TV stations). Even Fox Interactive Media display and search sales are flat, which means the company is having difficulty making its content pay on both new and traditional platforms.

Unprecedented advertising weakness at leading cable networks recently reported by Disney, Time Warner, News Corp. and others and the industry-wide collapse of DVD sales supports to film entertainment don't help either. (Yes, Viacom films made only $22 million on nearly $2 billion in revenues last quarter.)

Headcount reduction, operational integration, evergreen libraries and massive writedowns aside, Disney CEO Bob Iger points to the unmanageable "cyclicality of hit-driven content and a lull in the creative cycle." Clearly, the recession's biggest casualty could be the loss of creative innovation and risk.

--major advertisers and categories will never be the same

Auto advertising historically comprised more than one-third of local television ad spending, so a 70% reduction in auto ads is behind the 25% decline in overall TV station revenue, according to Goldman Sachs analyst Mark Winkes. The economic recovery will bring fewer automobile manufacturers, brands, dealerships and overall dollars--already evident in the fourth quarter. Even revenues at Disney's indomitable ESPN, reduced nearly 10% last quarter by the auto and electronics ad pullback, could be down 9% for the fiscal year, compared with a 6% revenue decline for all Disney cable networks.

It's the first sign of the thousand cuts to come from the permanent change in autos, financial services, real estate, retail and other major ad categories.

A significant upset to the network's spring upfront market is unavoidable, given forecasts calling for ad spending reductions of at least 10% for the broadcast networks, 5% for cable networks and 20% for TV stations in 2009.

--emerging deals use existing assets in new ways

Deals are beginning to surface out of necessity, offering new ways to finance, monetize and manage existing assets. Pairing Sirius XM radio with his DirecTV would give Liberty Media CEO and kingmaker John Malone new options to play the satellite card. Liberty would keep Sirius XM out of the clutches of rival EchoStar by assuming its debilitating $3.25 billion in post-merger debt. Under new ownership, the 43 cents-a-day Sirius XM service could get a new test of recession-time pay-for-play.

Similarly, the bankruptcy-related impact on Charter Communications, Midway Games, Clear Channel, Tribune, Young Broadcasting and dozens of other local broadcast companies could also redistribute assets. Alternatively, asset swaps like the one proposed by Nielsen Co. and WPP will theoretically create more efficient business models. Well-funded companies--from Time Warner to Apple and Google--will determine which challenged businesses get a new shot at life. CBS and NBC Universal could be among the next ones up.

3 comments about "Reality Check For Sustainable Business Models".
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  1. John Grono from GAP Research, February 16, 2009 at 3:55 p.m.

    A word of clarification amongst the zealotry.

    The comparison of the average audience for the Super Bowl on broadcast TV to the "watched all or part of" audience online (we call it reach) is comparing apples and oranges.

    What this means is that EVERY broadcast minute averaged 95.4m viewers in the US - including the ad minutage. However, if you looked across all the minutage of the game in the online world you can identify 100m browsers at SOMETIME during the game even if only for a few seconds. Yep, if you're one of the droves of people who tried to watch the game online and gave up because of the slow speeds and poor viewing experience your'e counted at full weight. Also, I wonder if the 100m online is the gross audience (i.e. total IP addresses served to the global market) or just the domestic audience as per the broadcast TV audience figure.

    This is Medai-101 stuff that has been conveniently glossed over.

  2. Rick Falls from RGIM Intl, February 16, 2009 at 5:46 p.m.

    We don't ride around in horses and buggies anymore people.

    The majors are going to have to find ways to adjust and compete for new age advertising (that works a heck of a lot better for less money than they do), or die.

    Money flows to good ideas and technology, and television (cable or not) has been unable to stop the bleeding from advertising dollar losses to more effective strategies at either a local or a national level.

    Sorry kids wee're tightening our belts and you just don't fit anymore. I wonder who will die a quicker death, newspapers or TV?

    HMMM !

  3. Christopher Payne-taylor from sAY-So, February 17, 2009 at 4:56 p.m.

    This is the same old song we heard two decades ago with the lyrics, "emergence of the paperless office," replaced by "the untimely death of broadcast TV." It's like the music industry pundits who said the major labels would all go away in deference to the rising democratized tide of the indies.

    Amazingly enough, there's this persistent myth in the tech world about the inevitability of new technologies supplanting the obsolescent predecessors. Which actually is one of the biggest industry myths going because that's simply not what actually happens.

    Oh, yes, one Microsoft operating system eventually does eclipse another (albeit to the disregarded whimpers of protest among the helpless user base). But by and large, technologies no longer push older solutions off the end of a short pier; they become integrated within the existing business and social frameworks.

    So, as much as grinning doomsdayers may wish for the demise of all things big and corporate, it is not likely to happen anytime soon. After all, propeller airplanes still exist and function very well within their own sphere.

    From my position as CMO of mobile advertainment provider, AdME (Advertising-driven Mobile Entertainment), I see the trajectory of new media not seeking to topple the older order, but first complementing existing channels, at least initially, until they become strong enough to carve out a space of their own. For instance, our mobile advertainment solution leverages all forms of traditional media as the discovery mechanism for the mobile components.

    This is the marketing paradigm for the digital age, in essence, not so much pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps as by the bootstraps of the well-established and entrenched. Nobody is looking to eliminate technology here; the overriding strategy is add to it.

    Therefore, next time you go to buy a CD or download an mp3, be aware that the newest, hippest, as well as the most established (ex: Metallica) are releasing their content on vinyl, not because they like or dislike the technology, business model, or delivery channel, but because they simply like the sound.

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