The future of TV; Netflix, Google, Apple, and Intel think they can remake the industry, but there’s a lot of money and brain-power standing in their way


Don’t Touch That Dial


Netflix, Google, Apple, and Intel think they can remake the industry, but there’s a lot of money and brain-power standing in their way.

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Netflix is having a good summer. The Internet streaming service garnered 14 Emmy nominations last month, including a Best Actor nod for House of Cards star Kevin Spacey. Four days later, the company announced that U.S. subscribers to its video-streaming service hit 30 million.

Netflix shares (ticker: NFLX) are up 170% on the year, making them the best performer in the S&P 500. But it’s the future of TV that investors are really excited about, and Netflix is not shy about putting itself in the center, declaring on its Website, “Over the coming decades and across the world, Internet TV will replace linear TV….As Internet TV grows from millions to billions, Netflix is leading the way.”The hype is overdone. Netflix may be posting banner numbers, but so is “linear TV,” the traditional sort carried by cable and satellite providers. In the U.S., advertisers bought a record $63 billion worth of TV time last year, according to data from Magna Global. Cable and satellite took in $97 billion in subscription fees in 2012, or 44 times Netflix’s streaming revenue. And TV content has never been more valuable. Pay TV providers handed over $43 billion last year to content owners like Walt Disney (DIS), Viacom(VIAB), and CBS (CBS), according to SNL Kagan. All told, the TV ecosystem brought in a record $160 billion last year, per industry data compiled by Barron’s.

Those who argue that television is ripe to be upended by new technology often compare it with the music industry. But music was distressed at the time Steve Jobs and Apple(AAPL) effectively took over distribution with iTunes. Having been seriously wounded by file-sharing, the industry had little to lose.

Not so the cable companies and content providers. “I think both sides realize they can lose a lot more than either can gain by defecting,” says Andrew Frank, a media analyst for Gartner, the technology research firm.

For now, though, investors are buying into the bullish vision of Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, who says Netflix will eventually enlist 60 to 90 million U.S. households for its streaming service. “We believe that consumers want to watch how, where, and when they want,” a Netflix spokesman tells Barron’s. “And they’re getting more options all the time for doing that.”

It’s not as if the cable companies, which are also the country’s largest broadband providers, don’t see the Internet coming. Last year, Comcast (CMCSA) began rolling out a new system known as X1. The interface takes the best aspects of Netflix’s interface, including thumbnail graphics to represent individual shows and movies. The company has made other common-sense improvements. The remote’s “last” button now displays a row of nine thumbnails on the TV screen, offering a choice of the viewer’s most recent channels. About half of Comcast subscribers have the new interface, which is already helping them find more content.

X1 users are viewing 20% more video-on-demand content, says Neil Smit, the CEO of Comcast Cable. “We’ve disrupted ourselves so we can innovate faster,” he says.

And yet, investors seem to think innovation is the sole domain of disrupters like Netflix and (AMZN), which sells its own streaming service as part of its $79 annual Prime membership plan.

NETFLIX SHARES TRADE at a seemingly untenable 105 times earnings estimates for the coming year. While traditional TV stocks have soared above their credit-crisis lows, they still look cheap by comparison, particularly Comcast and Viacom, which owns Nickelodeon, MTV, and Comedy Central.

Given its growth prospects and national footprint, Comcast, which traded last week at $46, could have upside of 20% or more. Dan Chung, the chief investment officer of Fred Alger Management, likes Comcast, and not only for its dominant distribution platform. He applauds the company’s 2011 purchase of NBCUniversal, one of TV’s big four content owners. Alger bought $175 million worth of the stock in the first three months of the year, after sitting on the sidelines for most of 2012.

Comcast trades at 17 times earnings estimates for the year ahead. That compares with a prerecession price/earnings multiple of 30. Based on enterprise value to earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization — a more traditional metric for cable — the shares are similarly discounted. Comcast could be worth $56.

On the content side, Viacom carries the cheapest price tag. After ranging from 16 to 20 times before the recession, Viacom’s forward P/E is less than 14. Investors are worried about declining ratings for Nickelodeon, the company’s children’s channel. But the company says measurement data are not yet accounting for views on new platforms like tablets and smartphones. Cable companies will eventually have to pay more for Viacom’s content, a fixture in households with young children and teenagers. (Meanwhile, Amazon recently outbid Netflix for streaming rights for popular kids shows like Dora the Explorer andSpongeBobSquarePants for its Prime Instant Video service.)

Viacom has noted that its channels get up to 20% of TV’s eyeballs but average less than 10% of the licensing fees. As the gap closes in the coming years, its shares should get more credit from Wall Street. At 16 times 2014 earnings, the stock is worth $86, 16% above a recent price of $74. In the meantime, Viacom continues to use its free cash flow to buy back stock. The company has reduced its share count by 27% since 2007, a theme we noted last year in “Viacom’s Latest Cable Hit: ‘The Big Payout,’ ” Oct. 8, 2012.

Needham & Co. analyst Laura Martin has studied the pay-TV ecosystem extensively. In a recent report titled The Future of TV, Martin sees 21st Century Fox (FOXA) as the best-positioned content player. Following its split from News Corp. (which publishes Barron’s), Fox is a pure-play content firm. The company is planning to launch a 24-hour sports channel, Fox Sports 1, on Aug. 17. Martin thinks Fox Sports 1 will take viewers from ESPN, just as Fox News did from CNN. She has a price target of $36 for Fox, 15% above its recent close.

There are plenty of other ways to play pay-TV’s continued dominance. Time Warner Cable (TWC), cable’s second-largest player, could benefit from a new wave of industry consolidation, either as the acquirer or the acquired. Cable pioneer John Malone has expressed interest in buying Time Warner Cable through his 27% holding in Texas-basedCharter Communications (CHTR), which is smaller but faster-growing than Time Warner Cable.

In the first quarter of the year, there were $4.9 billion worth of cable deals, with buyers paying an average of $4,934 per subscriber, according to SNL Kagan. That’s the highest figure since 2000.

For several years, the satellite providers Dish (DISH) and DirecTV (DTV) have been taking share from cable companies, insulating them from the cord-cutting talk. Ironically, though, it’s the satellite companies that have the most to lose if consumers do cut the cord. Unlike cable, satellite firms don’t have broadband pipes to fall back on. Satellite technology limits data transmission. In the long run, that makes them a risky proposition.

“THE CHANGING NATURE OF TELEVISION is not a new subject,” says Irwin Gotlieb, the chairman of GroupM, the parent group for WPP’s media agencies, and the world’s largest buyer of TV ads. “I don’t think any medium has had its death predicted for as long as television has.”

Just a year ago, Apple was viewed as the disrupter of the future, as investors awaited the imminent launch of an Apple television. Analysts predicted the same game-changing impact the iPod and iTunes had on music and the iPhone had on wireless. Shortly before he died in 2011, Steve Jobs famously told his biographer Walter Isaacson that he had a revolutionary plan for television. “I finally cracked it,” Jobs said.

Jobs’ vision seems increasingly unlikely, though the media can’t seem to let it go. Just last month, reports had Apple in discussions with TV players about a new set-top box that would enable consumers to skip commercials. Apple, the rumor had it, would compensate programmers for the lost ad revenue. “Dead on arrival,” is how one senior executive at a big content company described the proposal. “I guarantee that goes nowhere,” he told Barron’s.

The economics tells the story.

Even Apple, with its $150 billion in the vault, would struggle to cover the lost TV ads. The $63 billion advertisers paid last year comes out to about $545 per American household, or $45 every month.

“We have an ecosystem where advertising pays for a significant portion of the total cost of content production, and if you were to take that away, the consumer doesn’t have the wherewithal to offset the difference,” says GroupM’s Gotlieb.

CRAIG MOFFETT IS A VETERANcable analyst who recently left Bernstein to start his own firm. He says, “A lot of what you read about over-the-top video and the reinvention of TV amounts to wishful thinking rather than real analysis. It gets wrapped in fancy rhetoric about more choice and more viewer control and being able to watch whatever you want to watch whenever and in any location. But if you scratch the surface behind those high-minded ideals, what people are really saying is we wish TV was cheaper.”

Moffett, who now runs Moffett Research, adds, “I think it pays to start with economics rather than the technology. Technology can support all sorts of cool stuff. It’s the economics that’s the impediment.”

And content owners and cable companies aren’t going to roll over for anyone, including one another. For example, on Friday afternoon, Time Warner Cable dropped CBS from its system, the latest move in an ongoing dispute. The fight is over how much Time Warner Cable should pay to carry the CBS network, a feed that is still free over the airwaves.

On a separate front, many, including Arizona Sen. John McCain, have tried to force cable companies to unbundle their content, allowing consumers to cherry-pick channels. Unbundling advocates say the choice would result in savings. But consumers should be careful what they wish for. In 2011, Ali Yurukoglu and Greg Crawford, professors at Stanford and the U.K.’s University of Warwick, respectively, published a comprehensive study on cable prices. They looked at how content makers would react if forced to unbundle. The result was far more complicated than taking the current bill and dividing it by the number of channels. In fact, they note that the most-watched 50 channels would cost more under an a la carte approach than they do bundled together. That’s because the content owners would quickly renegotiate deals in order to make up for revenue losses.

That said, Stanford’s Yurukoglu does believe that change is coming. “There’s going to be more convergence between TV and the Internet: being able to watch from different devices. Much more on-demand. Things stored in the cloud. Recommendation systems. It makes total sense that it would,” he says. “It just doesn’t mean you’re going to be paying less for it.”

TO CABLE’S BEARS, TV’s powerful model is being undermined by a growing wave of cord-cutters — households that are unplugging their television sets from cable and satellite. The pay-TV industry ended the year with 101 million subscribers, a decline of 0.9%. It’s conceivable that the trend could accelerate as new 20-something households choose Internet-based options over pricier cable packages.

As of now, Comcast is not worried. Last week, the company said it lost 159,000 video customers in the second quarter. Its remaining 21.8 million video subscribers are paying more than ever, an average of $160 a month (the figure includes Internet and phone service). Even as a few customers pulled the plug, Comcast’s cable revenue was up 5.8%, to $10.5 billion, for the quarter.

Time Warner Cable and Cablevision (CVC) also grew revenue in the second quarter, despite small falloffs in their TV subscriber base.

The cord-cutting theory also overlooks a key piece of the puzzle. About 60% of U.S. households get high-speed Internet data through cable companies. In essence, cable’s place as the dominant pipe doesn’t change even if the world goes from traditional video channels to Internet TV.

Over time, cable companies are likely to monetize their broadband pipes more efficiently, rather than just handing over the unlimited access to competitors like Netflix. Comcast is experimenting with various usage-based trials. And Time Warner Cable already offers a tiered plan, in which customers are offered discounts for lighter data usage.

And on the regulatory side, tiered pricing just found an ally. In December, the Federal Communications Commission hired Michigan State professor Steve Wildman as its chief economist. Two weeks before taking the post, Wildman published a paper defending usage-based policies. “We found that, other things equal, usage tiers will likely contribute to better cash flows and stronger incentives to invest in [the] broadband plant, both to improve the quality of service for current customers and to extend networks into unserved and underserved territories.”

It’s a significant point for cable companies. If Netflix and other Internet TV were to displace their substantial video revenue, the cable companies could levy a toll on Internet TV usage. The move would erase Netflix’s pricing advantage and make cable companies indifferent about how subscribers watch content.

Long-term investors should keep in mind that owning the communication pipes is a powerful resource that can’t be easily replicated. Cable operators have spent $200 billion building out the network over the past 15 years. And yet, it’s Netflix that now sends up to a third of the traffic through those broadband pipes, according to networking firm Sandvine. Cable will eventually end that free ride.

Before that happens, Google (GOOG) could certainly debut its rumored Internet-TV service, creating a virtual cable operator. Intel (INTC) is considering a similar plan. And, of course, Apple will eventually come up with some way to monetize the living room.

AS THE WORLD WAITS, and speculates, distributors are taking the future into their own hands. Dish already offers an innovative service that records every prime-time network show in the cloud, allowing viewers to play back the recordings, on demand, up to eight days later.

Meanwhile, in June, Time Warner Cable announced that it would soon be streaming 300 live TV channels through Microsoft’s Xbox 360 game console. The stream, of course, will only be available to Time Warner Cable subscribers. This initiative is part of a broader industry push known as TV Everywhere, in which distributors and content providers are sending programming to tablets and smartphones, all with one requirement: an authenticated TV subscription. Needham’s Martin estimates that TV Everywhere could add $4 billion to industry coffers annually.

And by the end of the year, Comcast intends to introduce the next round of improvements to its user interface, dubbed X2, which will include voice navigation, the type of innovation that many assume could come only from Apple.

Through it all, TV’s incumbents will continue to be deliberate, even if it means watching the new guys grab headlines. Netflix will likely win at least a few Emmys this fall, prompting even more talk about the dinosaurs of the linear television world. Investors should follow the money, not the statues.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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