Policy

Is Retrans Cash Viable?

4/24/2005 8:00 PM Eastern

Viacom Inc.’s CBS Television Network is likely to seek cash for carriage from cable operators for retransmission consent in the years following the media company’s planned division into two separate operating units, company officials told analysts last week.

Viacom announced in March its plan to cleave itself into two separate, publicly traded units, one company consisting of its MTV Networks cable channels and studio Paramount Pictures, the other including its CBS and UPN broadcast networks, its TV stations, radio properties and outdoor advertising. The MTV Networks unit will be led by Viacom co-president and co-chief operating officer Tom Freston. Viacom co-president and co-COO Les Moonves will head up the other division.

PLAN ON TRACK

In a conference call April 19 with analysts to discuss first quarter results, Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone said that plan is moving forward.

Redstone said the company should make a decision on the separation by the end of the current quarter. The split could be completed by the first quarter of 2006, he said.

Asked what would happen with retransmission consent once the spinoff is completed, Moonves said it presents a perfect opportunity to start getting cash for carriage from cable operators.

“We think there’s a real possibility that CBS will be able to generate cash for our retrans,” Moonves said on the call.

Cable operators have largely resisted paying cash for carriage of broadcast networks. And the four major broadcasters have largely used retrans to force operators to carry their less-popular niche networks.

However, on the conference call, Freston said that Viacom’s cable networks don’t expect to get that much benefit from retrans in the future.

“Retrans has been a great value to MTV Networks over the last five years since we merged with CBS as we’ve been able to mop up all kinds of analog and digital space coincident with the cable operators rolling out their digital-network platform,” Freston said. “We think that game is largely over. Most of our deals are done until the end of the decade. Cable operators will be focusing more and more on VOD and broadband.”

Moonves said that CBS will not likely see cash for carriage for several years, mainly because most of its deals won’t expire for a few years.

“Nothing is going happen until these deals expire, some of them are coming up in the near future,” Moonves said. “As we go forward post-split, we think in the next three to five years it [cash for carriage] could be worth tens of millions of dollars to the CBS network.”

OPS GIRD FOR FIGHT

But CBS shouldn’t begin spending that retrans money yet. Cable operators, loath to pay cash for retransmission in the past, appear to be gearing up for a fight.

Last week, more than 55 cable companies, independent programmers and national organizations filed comments with the Federal Communications Commission in support of the American Cable Association’s call for reform of retransmission-consent rules.

The ACA, a lobbying group for independent cable operators, in March filed a petition with the FCC asking the body to examine and change regulations used by the Big Four TV broadcast networks — including CBS — and TV-station groups to allegedly prop up the price of retransmission consent. The ACA charged that cash-for-carry retransmission-consent demands could cost the ACA and its customers an estimated $1 billion if current rules aren’t changed.

The ACA petition has drawn comments in support from the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, the National Cable Television Cooperative, Court TV, Hallmark Channel, Mediacom Communications, Cebridge Connections, Atlantic Broadband, Millennium Digital Media, Armstrong and Susquehanna Communications.

“Retransmission consent is simply outdated regulatory policy — it precludes the television distribution arena from operating equitably,” Robert Rose, Court TV’s executive vice president of affiliate relations, said in his network’s comments.

The FCC last month released the petition for public comment to the ACA filing, with comments due last week.

“The regulations identified by the ACA, particularly retransmission-consent provisions, may cause adverse marketplace consequences, including further difficulty in launching and distributing new services, because cable operators forced to divert substantial payments to broadcasters have less to spend on new, independent programming,” Paul FitzPatrick, Crown Media’s executive vice president, said in Hallmark’s comments.

Regarding the filings in support of the ACA, president and CEO Matt Polka said, “This enormous record and response from across the country shows that retransmission consent is not working well for consumers, cable operators or the public interest.”

ACQUISITION TARGETS

While cash for retrans is still up in the air, Freston gave some insight on possible acquisition targets for the MTV Networks division after the planned split.

“If a cable network comes up for sale, particularly something that has an older skew where we have less inventory than kids, teens and young adults, we would be very interested,” Freston said. “It’s going to depend on the quality of the network and of course on the price. We’re also looking at acquisitions [in] smaller, largely Web-based companies that would enhance our existing web businesses in the demographics we appeal to. Those would be things around video games, community sites and things of that like.”

For the quarter, Viacom reported revenue growth of about 5% to $5.6 billion and cash flow rose 6% to $1.3 billion, mainly because of strong performance at its cable networks. Cable network revenue was up 19% in the period to $1.7 billion while cash flow increased 17% to $695 million.