Finance

Scale Won’t Save the Sub Fee Increase

As margins shrink, leverage shifts from network to distributor, says analyst Todd Juenger 7/31/2017 8:00 AM Eastern
Sanford Bernstein media analyst Todd Juenger says that to maintain profit margins, either affiliate-fee growth must slow down or networks have to be dropped.

INDIANAPOLIS — With the rest of the cable industry focused on the possibility of Scripps Networks combining with either Discovery Communications or Viacom, Sanford Bernstein media analyst Todd Juenger warned that one of the catalysts for a deal — preserving double-digit affiliate fee increases — won’t last too much longer for any cable programmer.

Update: Discovery to Buy Scripps Networks for $14.6 billion

Gross margins on video programming for the average cable operator are about $21 per subscriber per month, after affiliate fees and customer expenses, Juenger noted on a panel at The Independent Show here. Juenger estimated that by 2018, that gross margin would shrink to $15 per month per subscriber.

“If nothing else changes, how long is it until that $20 per subscriber per month goes to zero?” Juenger asked. “The answer is 2023.” In order to maintain profit margins, either affiliate-fee growth must slow down or networks have to be dropped, he added.

Juenger had an answer for that, too. Of the 10 network groups that control the bulk of programming and affiliate fees, he said distributors have several choices.

Weighing Net Losses
The greatest financial impact, he said, would come from dropping The Walt Disney Co.’s networks — including broadcaster ABC and ESPN, pay TV’s priciest network — as Disney charges the highest affiliate fees at $11.49 per sub, per month. But it could also prompt the greatest number of subscribers to switch providers: 43%, by Juenger’s estimate.

Dropping Discovery Communications, Scripps Networks, AMC Networks and CBS would have the smallest subscriber impact — under 10% for each network group — but also the least financial impact. All four networks combined have total fees of less than $4 per subscriber per month.

That leaves Viacom, which has affiliate fees of about $3.50 per subscriber per month and had already been dropped by Cable One, Suddenlink Communications (later restored after its purchase by Altice USA) and several smaller cable operators. Those distributors have lost video customers at a higher than average rate, at least partly attributable to shedding the Viacom channels. Cable One has shed about 20% of its video base in the past two years, compared to 2% to 3% for the rest of the industry. But Cable One was willing to sacrifice what it believed to be less profitable customers and has focused on broadband for years.

For Juenger, it’s a simple case of economics. Ultimately, it comes down to how many subscribers a distributor is willing to lose. According to Juenger’s calculations, dropping Viacom would result in losing about 15% of a distributor’s video base.

“If you can stand to lose 15% of your subscribers, you should drop Viacom,” Juenger said, adding that he wasn’t singling out the company because of some personal vendetta. “If you drop Disney, you’ll have a tougher time maintaining subscribers.

“Everybody has something to break,” he added. “This is why the networks cannot continue to harvest these big price increases. It’s no longer financially viable to carry it.”

But it is just that fear of eroding affiliate-fee growth that is pushing some networks together. Scripps Networks, which has about eight channels including HGTV, Food Network, Travel Channel and CMT, is in merger talks with Discovery Communications. That’s after Viacom dropped out of the running for Scripps, after reportedly readying an offer of $10.6 billion in cash.

The Discovery bid is expected to top $90 per share for Scripps, a 34% premium to its close on July 18, when merger talk first surfaced.

Read More: Complete Coverage of the Proposed Discovery-Scripps Merger

Fighting Scale With Scale
Merger proponents say smaller players need scale economics and added carriage for negotiating leverage. That’s because distributors have also been very active on the M&A front to give them more scale and leverage against programmers.

With big deals like Charter Communications-Time Warner Cable completed, and AT&T’s $108.7 billion purchase of Time Warner Inc. winding through the federal approval process, several other smaller deals have popped up in the past few months. TPG Capital has been particularly aggressive in the space — it snapped up RCN and Grande Communications last year for $2.25 billion, and in May agreed to purchase Wave Broadband for $2.36 billion. Cogeco Cable, the Canadian parent of Atlantic Broadband, agreed to buy Harron Communications’ MetroCast operations for $1.4 billion.

For smaller operators, the main catalyst for deals is to expand fiber and broadband networks. For many, video is becoming a second-class offering — small operators CableOne and Suddenlink Communications were the first to drop a major programmer (Viacom) in 2014.

According to a panel session at last week’s Independent Show, more deals are expected to come.

“Markets are strong across the board. We’re seeing that in the checks the private equity guys are writing,” said CoBank senior vice president Ted Koerner at a TIS session moderated by DH Capital co-founder and chairman Joe Duggan.

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