Next steps for the LA Times

The Los Angeles Times officially traded hands yesterday from Tronc to biotech billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong, who named Norman Pearlstine as the new Executive Editor. Pearlstine had retired as Vice Chairman of Time Inc as it closed its sale to Meredith Corp, following 50 years in roles across Time, Bloomberg, the WSJ, and Forbes. In the announcement, the LA Times refers to him as a “fixture of the New York media circles.” (link)

The hire doesn’t suggest a bold modernization is in the works nor that a truly distinct California brand will soon differentiate the publication. But, I think it’s fair to say that Soon-Shiong is approaching this with a long time horizon and as a cause to subsidize more than a market opportunity to seize.

The first move seems to be stabilizing a ship that’s undergone constant shifts and executive turnover in the name of modernization (by Tronc), plus building the LA Times’ prestige in journalism circles and in the Acela-riding politics & finance sphere.

As it vies for comparison next to the NYT and WaPo as a national force, it will look to evolve in a similar vein to those organizations. Expect a determined shift to digital subscriptions, experimentation with video, podcasts, news chatbots, etc. Expect more interviews and op-eds with national VIPs too. I wouldn’t expect the LA Times to pioneer new concepts in the media industry during this first phase though; it’s securing its foundations.

My question/concern is whether a publication that cares so much about becoming a favorite child of the “New York media circles” can craft a sufficiently unique brand to gain a national following on equal footing to the NYT and WaPo. Consumers don’t need a third-place also-ran, especially if it’s asking for a subscription. The LA Times needs to own a perspective and style that stands apart from the East Coast establishment papers…what would a uniquely California view of the world be?

This is a post for another time, but I think there’s actually a major market opportunity presented by the fact that political coverage (and business coverage to a lesser extent) is locked within a fixed framework in this country…the language we use around Right and Left, the norms we pretend exist…there’s an opportunity for a politcal news organization to swoop in and engage based on an entirely different framework.

The other risk is rushing too fast to offer a little bit of everything to everyone (as a national publication) before it has gained a dominant position anywhere. The NYT is becoming a diversified bundle and it is a smart strategy, but that’s because it has long owned the turf of the most prestigious publication of national scope. I know lots of Los Angelenos who pay for the NYT; I couldn’t name anyone (at least under 35) who has an LA Times subscription. You need to win somewhere before you can win everywhere.

I’m also intrigued to see how Pearlstine attacks business coverage, which is functionally non-existent at the LA Times. You would think the LA Times would try to own coverage of industries anchored in California like entertainment, tech, aerospace, and agriculture but it doesn’t even compete. Businesspeople pay for subscriptions, pay to attent conferences, etc. though…it’s an important audience for the LA Times to start engaging. And its not going to beat the NYT, WSJ, or FT at insider coverage of finance.

Congrats to Pearlstine on the new gig. As a proud Los Angeleno, I look forward to seeing what he has in store.

Is CBS the next media acquisition?

CBS is perhaps the most obvious media company to be the next target for larger acquirers. The $21B company has the leading TV network in the US and over 5M subscribers between two OTT platforms (CBS All Access and Showtime) in addition to a leading book publisher (Simon & Schuster), deep content libraries, numerous digital media properties, and a global presence.

Controlling shareholder Shari Redstone seems interested in that outcome (as does CBS leadership) and it would resolve the open conflict between her National Amusements and the CBS board. The loser of the Comcast and Disney bids for Fox would be a natural choice here, but with regulatory risk since the combination of ABC or NBC with CBS would dominate US airwaves (but the FCC is working to remove limits of TV ownership anyway).

Apple and Amazon make sense from the tech side; $13B Discovery and/or $4.8B Lionsgate might offer a valuable merger to become a bigger force in content; Verizon seems to have lost ambitions in content M&A but could return, or John Malone could approach it via Charter Communications (the #2 cable operator in the US).

…fuboTV looks like an attractive M&A target too (on a far smaller scale…its subscriber base is in the low hundreds of thousands). It’s quickly become a go-to OTT service for sports. It would help Apple, Amazon, and Facebook with their push into streaming sports; it would be a natural extension of Discovery’s global sports and reality TV focus; it could augment or merge with ESPN+ to ensure Disney has the dominant OTT sports platform; or it could be a valuable add-on by other media players to counter ESPN+; FOX and Sky are already investors in fuboTV too…if they combine maybe they offer to pull fuboTV into the combination.

2018 FIFA World Cup

Today is the start of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia (ending July 15). In the US, FOX has the English-language TV rights while Telemundo has the Spanish-language TV rights; fuboTV is streaming the games via its FOX partnership. Here’s the list of all the broadcast, streaming, and radio rights by country: link.

Team USA didn’t qualify for the first time since 1986, which is a big blow to FOX since casual viewers are unlikely to watch. It paid $400M to outbid ESPN in 2011 for the 2018 & 2022 rights plus the 2015 & 2019 women’s World Cup rights. Telemundo also outbid Univision at the time. The 2014 World Cup brought an avg TV audience of 4.3M to ESPN (+50% from 2010) and 3.4M to Univision.

In 2014, 3.2B people (45% of the world population) tuned in over TV for at least 1 minute and 280M tuned in online. 2.1B people watched for at least 20 minutes. The average audience per match was 187M. Those numbers exclude out-of-home viewing. (source)

21st Century Fox’s valuable position in India

Here’s an interesting data point: 21st Century Fox dominates OTT market share in India through its Hotstar subsidiary, which has 150M MAUs. According to new data from internet service provider Jana, Hotstar accounted for 70% of video streaming app downloads in Q1, compared to 13% for SonyLIV, 11% for Voot (owned by Viacom 18), 5% for Amazon Prime Video, and just 1.4% for Netflix.

Hotstar is part of Star India, a 21CF asset that could generate $1B in EBITDA by 2020. Star India reaches 700M people per month across 60 TV channels, plus has sought-after cricket broadcast rights; it owns 80% of Hotstar (with 150M MAUs). Star India hasn’t gotten much attention in the press coverage of Disney and Comcast’s bids for 21CF but it’s a notable component of the conglomerate and offers substantially more growth than most other divisions of 21CF…it’s the market leader in a massive, rapidly-growing market.

(sources: Variety, WSJ)

 

Spotify starts signing artists directly

The big news today is that Spotify is offering advances (in the hundreds of thousands of dollars range) to select indie musicians and talent managers in exchange for licensing their music directly to Spotify. By direct licensing, they will get up to a 50% share of royalties plus retain all rights to their work. (link)

The streaming platform is asking these artists not to refer to themselves as being “signed by Spotify.” Spotify’s deals with the major labels prohibit it from competing with them in a substantive way, although that leaves a grey area depending on how you define competitive.

There has always been speculation that Spotify would eventually leverage its scale to cut out the major labels – founder/CEO Daniel Ek said as much in his early pitches on the startup’s strategy. The company has always publicly denied that’s the plan when asked about it though. This news doesn’t mean they’re moving in that direction, but it certainly suggests they are looking to test some aspects of the concept.

Most of the revenue that Spotify takes in goes to the labels and publishing companies that own the songs’ copyrights, and only a minority of those royalty payments end up in the pockets of the artists. Cutting out the middleman would be a big financial boost to both Spotify and the artists (of course, labels and publishers reject the characterization of them as mere middlemen).

Spotify needs to play ball with 3 major label groups who control most of the music in the world that consumers care about; if they walk then Spotify loses its whole value proposition (the music). An attempt to compete with them would be very risky.

Stats on teen social media use

A new Pew Research Center survey shows that YouTube is the most popular online platform among US teenagers age 13-17, with 85% using it. Instagram (72%), Snapchat (69%), and Facebook (51%) trail behind. A plurality (35%) say they use Snapchat most often though – followed closely by YouTube (32%) and distantly by Instagram (15%) and Facebook (10%). (link)

Another interesting data point from the survey is that teens from households with income under $30k are twice as likely (70% vs. 36%) as teens from households with income over $75k to use Facebook.

90% of US teens play video games (83% of females, 97% of males).

95% of US teens have access to a smartphone nowadays (it’s above 90% for every demographic).

New Resource: a Database of Media Investors

I have several projects in the works to make Monetizing Media a helpful hub for media entrepreneurs, executives, and investors. The first was the daily MediaDeals newsletter which is going strong. The second has just launched: a crowdsourced database of media investors around the world.

The List of Media Investors is an interactive spreadsheet (powered by Airtable) with both investment firms and the individual investors who work at them. You can browse the whole thing or search by location, investment interests, geographic focus, investment type, etc.

This database will be crowdsourced among the Monetizing Media community, so expect it to get regular updates showing what certain investors are interested in, whether they’ve switched firms, what their twitter handle is, etc.

I encourage you to help make it a great resource for everyone in the industry. Take a look and use the links there to make suggestions or updates!

The Italian Job

(This is an abstract from today’s MediaDeals newsletter.)

Telecom Italia is shaping into an exciting drama. Let’s take a look.

Telecom Italia S.p.A. (aka TIM) is the big telecom in Italy; it’s publicly traded with a €16B market cap, FY17 revenue of €19.8B (and €7.8B in EBITDA), and was formed in 1994 as a roll-up of the state telephone monopoly and several smaller publicly-owned telecoms.

Vivendi, the French media conglomerate (parent of Canal+, Universal Music Group, etc.), is pursuing a strategy to become the dominant media force in southern Europe. It owns a 29% stake in MediaSet, the Italian broadcasting conglomerate founded by former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi who has returned as a leading force in conservative politics. In 2015, Vivendi began building up its 15% stake in Telecom Italia to the current 24% ownership, gaining control of two-thirds of board seats and naming the Vivendi CEO as TIM’s chairman.

Vivendi’s control has been controversial in Italy – including calls by some political figures to intervene – and with the elections last weekend showing a huge surge in support for nationalist candidates on the right (like Berlusconi) that’s unlikely to disappear. Meanwhile, TIM’s performance has been lackluster (with 1/3 of its market cap lost since 2015 and 3 CEOs over 2 years), and Vivendi has been unsuccessful in creating synergies between itself, MediaSet, and TIM as hoped. MediaSet and Berlusconi’s family office Fininvest are suing Vivendi for backing out of a €800M agreement to acquire its pay-TV division; Vivendi is trying to settle the dispute while getting MediaSet to join its proposed JV with TIM for exclusive content production and distribution to TIM customers…but that is on the rocks now as well.

Enter activist Paul Singer and his Elliott Management hedge fund ($34B AUM) which just revealed it has a stake in TIM and hopes to make changes to the board, although we’ve no details yet. Elliott blocked TIM from a merger 15 years ago. Vivendi CEO / TIM Chairman Arnaud de Puyfontaine has not talked to Elliott and says he’s not concerned about pressure to change strategy or leadership. Yesterday, however, TIM released a 3-year plan focused on digitalization with promises of increased shareholder value, plus it announced it will spin out its fixed-line division as a separate subsidiary in order to placate regulators.

Elliott’s strategy could be to improve performance by negotiating changes to management and strategy by gaining 1/3 of the board seats. Or, buying into some rumors that Vivendi ultimately sees TIM as a trading chip in global media consolidation, Elliott could try to engineer a sale of the telecom.

SVOD and Protectionism

The Dutch Culture Council recently asked legislators to require SVOD services operating in the country to maintain libraries with at least 15% Dutch content and apply a 2-5% tax on all revenue derived from foreign content streamed in the country. It’s a protectionist move both to nurture the Dutch film/TV industry in a competitive global market and to protect Dutch culture from the overwhelming pop culture influence of Hollywood. It’s also increasingly common around the world.

Local content quotas have long existed in television. Now that governments are wrapping their head around online streaming – and especially amid the surge of nationalist populism – clampdowns are coming.

The EU Parliament voted last year on a mandate that 30% of content on VOD platforms be European (FYI: Netflix’s library in Europe is already ~20% European). National governments are layering national quotas over that. Italy raised its local content quota on TV (which is supposed to include SVOD) to 60%. France already has a 60% quota on TV and is pressuring VOD platforms to substantially increase quotas as well, with Netflix CEO Reed Hastings committing to increase the company’s French content production by 40% in 2018.

In China, 70% of content on SVODs must be Chinese (hence why Netflix doesn’t operate there and instead signed a distribution deal with Baidu-owned iQiyi).

The net effect is a limitation on the amount of international content made available to subscribers in these countries and an increase in local content that doesn’t meet the bar for quality those platforms otherwise require. But the concerns are legitimate. The dynamic of online streaming platforms is a hits business. As Netflix and Amazon Prime Video expand globally, their hit shows become the hit shows across every geography. And the resources these SVOD platforms have to invest in their own content dwarfs that of local studios; even Rupert Murdoch felt 21st Century Fox wasn’t big enough to compete on its own. Local content quotas (and potentially streaming taxes) help nurture the local media industry to produce local hits (and sometimes global hits), which is important economically and culturally.

I wonder, however, how feasible content quotas are outside censorship-heavy states like China. How do you define regulated streaming content vs. content that’s just part of the broader internet (like Youtube videos)? What about SVOD services whose entire niche is to share a certain culture’s content with people abroad, like BritBox – a 250,000-subscriber service entirely dedicated to British TV shows and classic British films? If they’re restricted enough, won’t Europeans just use VPNs to access content that Netflix subscribers get in the US?

(This post is an abstract from today’s MediaDeals newsletter.)