Saturday, July 26, 2008


The privatization of Clear Channel Communications ends a 2-year effort to buyout the leading radio and outdoor advertising firm. The $17.9 billion buyout by Bain Capital and Thomas H. Lee Partners allows the new owners the opportunity to pursue strategies with less influence from unpredictable investors pursuing short-term interests. The sale comes amid heavy competition in terrestrial and satellite radio, but provides the new owners more flexibility in deciding how to best operate the 900 radio stations, radio programming services, and subsidy that owns one million outdoor ad locations.

The sale is just one more in a growing trend for private equity purchases of media firms. Their interest in media companies stems from the fact that the market value of many does not reflect the underlying cash flows and asset values or the mid- to long-term prospects of the firms.

The valuation challenge of media occurs in good part because advertising expenditures are not evenly distributed throughout the year and because advertising revenue is significantly affected by fluctuations in the economy. These variations create significant disquiet among stock market investors because they make revenue, returns, and dividends less predictable in the short term.

These realities—combined with unproven beliefs of many investors that new media are displacing all mature media and making growth in their businesses impossible—reduce the valuation of media stocks and make media firms attractive to private equity firms that think about the businesses in terms other than quarterly performance.

Monday, July 21, 2008


Sometimes companies forget what businesses they are in and Comcast seems to be the latest media and communication company to do so.

The problem evidenced in the dispute between the FCC and Comcast over its traffic management policies blocking or slowing BitTorret and other files in violation of FCC network neutrality rules requiring open access. Without addressing whether regulators or Comcast are right in the dispute, it is clear from the company’s response that it has lost sight of it core business.

Comcast argues it was engaging in reasonable business practices by limiting the flow of BitTorrent files (often used to download large video, audio, and text files) because they push up the flow of traffic and slow the system. In Comcast’s view, the system and its integrity are its raison d’etre and represent the business it is in. It is easy to understand why the company and its executives might think so.

Comcast spends the majority of its effort and personnel creating and maintaining its system and infrastructure, tackling issues of system capacity and capabilities, and working to ensure system reliability and speed. It provides video, Internet, and voice services via 575,000 miles of wires serving 15 million cable subscribers, 13 million Internet users, and 4 million digital home providers. In the last three years Comcast has spent $13.6 billion in capital expenditures on the system.

Unfortunately, the extraordinary network it operates and maintains—the lines, switches, head-ins, Internet and telephone connections—are not the business of Comcast, they are just the requirements for conducting the business. Its real business is providing customers access to the video, audio, text, and voice communications they desire.

Its central purpose is serving the needs of the end users, including those who want to acquire capacity-eating BitTorrent files. It is the purpose that its executives seem to have forgotten when they decided their network management practices were more important than the wishes and desires of their customers. Their absent mindedness is not completely surprising, however, because the company has long had one of the poorest records of customer service among media firms. Lots of problems develop rapidly if you think it would be a good business if you just didn't have to deal with bothersome customers.

Thursday, July 17, 2008


The announcement of the finalists for the 2008 Emmy drama nominations shows how weak major television networks have become and the feeble program strategies they are now employing. AMC’s “Mad Men” and FX’s “Damages” became the first series ever produced by basic tier cable channels to become finalists for best series and they were joined in the 6 nominee list by Showtime for “Dexter”.

The results were even worse for networks in the major acting categories: Only 1 of the five Emmy nominees for lead actor and 2 of the five for lead actress went to network programs.

Overall, 24 cable network programs received nominations and 7 cable channels received 10 or more nominations. HBO received 85 nominations—beating out all the broadcast networks, Showtime received 20 nominations, and AMC received 20 nominations.

Drama is a bellwether of the health of television programming and networks continue to fair poorly. It is a particularly important genre, socially and culturally, because it allows explorations of beliefs, attitudes, norms, aspirations, and fears better than other program types. However, success is unpredictable and good drama is expensive to produce. Historically it was the province of the well funded dominant networks, but that has now changed.

The decline of quality in network television programming is directly related to the increasing number of channels available in households. As the number of channels increases, the average number of viewers declines, producing declining advertising support, and thus reducing resources available for program investments. The responses of networks have been predictable. They offer more game shows and reality programs that are less expensive to produce, avoid productions that are edgy and innovative, and rerun programs as much as possible.

Network prime time filled with shows such as “I survived a Japanese Game Show”, “Wife Swap”, “Nashville Star,” and The Bachelorette” and the networks wonder why they have trouble capturing audiences and gaining financial resources. When they do provide drama it is all too often formulaic and a spin off from an already successful series. There are strong tendencies for network drama to have a criminal or legal practice oriented or take a prime time soap opera approach, such as “CSI”, “Law & Order”, “Desperate Housewives”, and “Grey’s Anatomy”.

The program challenge has been growing worse year after year since the development of cable television channels in the 1970s. I don’t want to be interpreted as saying the networks have produced no fine drama, but the amount has declined precipitously.

This raises the question of why cable channels are able to follow an opposite path, increasing their production of drama and gaining more acclaim for their work. The simple answer is money. Having additional sources of income other than advertising frees programs from the necessity of seeking audiences linked to interests of advertisers and from the content influence of advertisers. It allows producers, writers, and directors to employ greater creativity, to address controversial subjects, and to take the time to ensure quality in the production.

Subscriber-supported HBO has the longest and most distinguished record in producing original drama with highly rated and acclaimed series such as “The Sopranos”, “Angels in America”, “Six Feet Under”, “Deadwood”, “Band of Brothers”, and “Sex and the City”. HBO is premium channel financed by subscriptions from about one third of American households, a clear example that many viewers want and are willing to pay for innovative, quality programming.

In recent years there has also been significant growth of drama from cable channels receiving both subscriber and advertising revenue, thus giving us programming such as USA network’s “Monk” and TNT’s “The Closer”. Original television drama is now being produced by other channels, such as AMC, Lifetime, and Showtime, as well.

One of the side effects of the increased production of drama by cable channels is that they are now playing significant export roles and their programming is regularly appearing in prime time on national channels, especially public service channels, in Europe and elsewhere.

Network executives need to seriously reconsider their programming strategies, particularly where drama is concerned, or they risk become secondary channels in the years to come. Unless they find ways to develop and support quality drama, it will increasingly become the trophy programming of cable channels in the years to come.