Broadcasters continued to eke out double-digit percentage increases in retransmission-consent revenue in the first quarter, despite mounting evidence that the pay TV universe is shrinking.
A look at some of the top broadcast station groups show that retrans revenue, while still rising at a healthy double-digit percentage clip, leveled off a bit from the triple-digit increases of a year ago. But overall growth at the top five publicly traded broadcasters rose a collective 25% in the period, slightly behind the 35% increases in the first quarter of 2015.
SCRIPPS LEADS THE CHARGE
Leading the charge was E.W. Scripps, which boosted its quarterly retrans haul 92% to $53.6 million, behind the 123.8% increase in the same period last year. Sinclair Broadcast Group — the largest station owner with 172 broadcast properties in 81 markets — maintained a high-single digit percentage increase in the period, although it told analysts those raises will taper off in the next three years as its deals mature.
Sinclair said its next big retrans negotiation will be at the end of the year, with Comcast, and it expects 2017 retrans increases to be in the mid-single digits, dipping to the low-single digits by 2018.
The company, which has been aggressively accumulating stations over the past five years — it had only 58 stations in January 2011 — will have some added leverage in retrans negotiations going forward. It agreed to purchase sports network Tennis Channel in January (the deal closed on March 1), adding to its growing stable of cable networks that include American Sports Network, Ring of Honor and Comet TV. While Tennis Channel had little impact on the first quarter — it had only been officially under the Sinclair umbrella for a month in the period — the network is expected to have influence in future negotiations.
The second-largest station owner — Nexstar Broadcast Group, with 104 properties in 54 markets — saw retrans revenue rise 46.2% to $97.3 million in the quarter, less than the 89.5% increase in the same period in 2015.
Of the top six station owners, all except Tegna, the former Gannett broadcasting group, reported a smaller percentage increase in Q1 2016 than in the prior year. That could be in part because of a declining pay TV subscriber base, as total pay TV customers fell by 1.2% in the quarter. But it is more likely tied to the timing of retrans renewals and overall market maturity. Tegna said it expected retrans to grow more than 30% for the rest of the year.
MVPDs reached several retrans deals with station owners in the first quarter, including Cox (with Nexstar), Time Warner Cable (with Scripps) and Dish (with Cordillera Communications), which likely had an impact on revenue growth. Most of those deals — except for TWC and Scripps — also included brief blackout periods, which one pay TV industry group believes has a huge impact on rates.
The American Television Alliance, a group that includes the traditional pay TV distributors such as Charter Communications, Cablevision Systems, DirecTV and Dish Network, said there were 193 blackouts in 2015 — a new record and more than twice the 94 blackouts in 2014. So far in 2016, 26 blackouts have occurred, and more are expected as deals come up for renewal, usually around major sporting and entertainment events.
The ATVA sees a direct correlation between blackouts and higher retrans fees, adding that oftentimes consumers are forced to pay higher rates after a dark period has ended.
“Each broadcaster’s quarterly earnings report is further confirmation that the retrans cash grab is driving the TV blackout crisis,” said ATVA spokesman Michael Hacker in a statement.
Back in July 2015, SNL Kagan raised its estimates for overall retrans revenue growth to $10.3 billion by 2021, a 63% increase from the $6.3 billion in 2015. CBS alone has said it will generate about $1 billion in retrans revenue in 2016, growing to $2.5 billion by 2020.
RETRANS TAKES UP THE SLACK
Retrans fees have been a savior for some broadcasters, taking up the slack in recent years as the advertising market has tanked. But even as ad sales have begun to rebound — Morgan Stanley media analyst Ben Swinburne said in a recent note that the first quarter was the strongest for national TV ads since Q3 2013, with broadcast advertising revenue up between 8% and 10% — retrans fees continue to rise.
While overall percentage growth appears to have slowed in the first quarter, Pivotal Research Group CEO and senior media and communications analyst Jeff Wlodarczak said it probably won’t last long, adding that it could simply be a result of the “law of large numbers.”
“As they keep getting bigger, the growth is going to slow,” Wlodarczak said. “I see broadcasters trying to push through higher fees on distributors to offset lost revenue from cord cutters/shavers, which will of course only exacerbate the problem.”