You know you are in the presence of a media revolution when NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker openly declares the prolonged writers' strike "devastating"--forcing the reinvention of his business. Former AOL COO Bob Pittman promises to turn TV stations' economic challenge into a digital bonanza. The do-or-die time for broadcasters comes a year from now, when the government mandates analog-to-digital conversion, the most underestimated, expensive and potentially profound change ever for the medium.
One of the unintended consequences of the lingering writers' strike is rising cable network ratings and advertising prices, which are moving closer to parity with their broadcast brethren and intensifying the shift of power away from the Big 4. At some point, the lowest-rated broadcast network programs and the highest-rated cable programs will be the same. On that strength, many of the specialized cable networks will tap into the pricing premiums for delivering target audiences. After all, niche content is a cornerstone of the new digital paradigm.
These can be the best of times for Strauss Zelnick, whose diverse media experience and independent funding sources make him an opportunistic buyer in a troubled market. In seven years, ZelnickMedia, a private equity and advisory firm, has built an estimated $2.5 billion portfolio of growth companies in the interactive media sector. He says he has improved the profitability of every portfolio company he has owned.
You don't want to tangle with John Malone or Barry Diller. That's why their blistering legal and business struggles with each other will be great spectator sport in a year otherwise bogged down by gloomy economics. Diller and Malone are consummate deal makers, visionaries and long-time friendly adversaries. Their tangled business investments have been haunting them for years. Now, Diller is the target of the same cutting tactics endured over the years by News Corp., Time Warner and other equity partners of Malone and his $9 billion Liberty Media Holdings Co.
The natives are restless. Plenty of buyers and sellers are eager to do deals. There is an abundance of untapped liquidity being held hostage by fear and confusion. As transactions start to flow again, they will be fewer, smaller, more strategic and less-leveraged. They will be driven by a need to restructure and grow core businesses in the digital age.
Media, tech and Internet companies, and the Wall Street analysts who cover them, are looking beyond the current tumult to the rest of this year and into 2009. Unfortunately, many don't like what they see. Without political and Olympic ad spend in 2008 and a declining home video market, next year's media giants can bank on declining revenues.
Amid the chaos and panic created by Wall Street and the Federal Reserve, ad-dependent companies are scrambling to determine just how impaired their financial lifeline will be in a troubled economy. Three words: trickle-down effect. Worse: The economic pressures of auto, finance and housing will spill over into 2009, when there will be no $3 billion artificial boost of cyclical election-year dollars.
Although slipping in its rank as one of the most popular places on the Internet, a $28 billion search engine with 136 million users should not be an albatross in a time of booming interactivity--but Yahoo is. CEO Jerry Yang is struggling to breathe new life into the 14-year-old portal born of the Internet age with the smart, lean elements that old-line media companies are desperate to grasp.
With much of the original series stockpile depleted and the networks ramping reality series, advertising prices and spending may not be as predictable. Regardless of when the writers' strike is settled, the broadcast TV networks will be unable to pull together series development and production fast enough to assure a typical fall prime time season. Forget historic expectations. It's a new digital ballgame.
Apple CEO Steve Jobs intended to wow the faithful at Macworld Expo with the ultra-thin MacBook Air computer and iTunes digital movie rentals. Apple stock dropped, and consumers yearned for another transforming iPhone-like device. But there was far more going on than meets the eye. The initial wave of digital interactivity has conditioned consumers, businesses and investors to live on the edge of a tidal wave of big-bang developments. In 2008, those will continue--and Apple's actions, even if tangential, will lead the way.