MediaFile

Paul Allen’s Charter might not be Paul Allen’s after all

Paul Allen, the billionaire who made his money as co-founder of Microsoft, might no longer be the largest individual owner of cable company Charter Communications after it emerges from bankruptcy by April 1.

According to a story broken by Reuters on Thursday private equity firm Apollo Group is planning to take economic ownership of Charter. Allen will retain a 35 percent voting control as had previously been announced. 

Under Allen’s watch as chairman, Charter spent billions of dollars acquiring smaller cable systems across the United States, running up a pile of crippling debt in the process. That debt load led to the company announcing last month that it has agreed a pre-packaged bankruptcy deal with senior creditors which will be filed any day now.

Allen has a spotty track record with his many investments, which range from middling NBA basketball team Portland Trail Blazers to online retailer Value America. But as this AP profile piece notes Charter may be his biggest disappointment.

Keep an eye on:

    Blockbuster swung to fourth-quarter net loss due to a  writedown (WSJ) Apple iTunes offers feature films in HD (Hollywood Reporter/Reuters) Samsung launches movies to mobiles service (Reuters)

(Photo: Reuters)

Pay TV: Shelter from the storm?

Safe haven. Two magical — and mysterious — words. Cable and satellite companies didn’t fit the safe haven bill in 2008, but 2009 just may be there year.

According to a Reuters story out today, “cable and satellite service providers now hold the promise of strong free cash flow growth as they retain old customers but spend less on deploying set-top boxes and digital video recorders due to a fall in new subscriber growth.”

Remember, however, that before the economy fell apart, a number of investors considered the pay TV industry “recession proof.” The argument went that even in the toughest of times, Americans would stay home and watch TV, saving money on trips to movies or out to dinner.

Write this down: News Corp

News Corp is many things to many people. Its latest incarnation? Pinata.

Everyone is taking a whack at Rupert Murdoch’s international media empire these days as its stock languishes and it gets ready to report second-quarter financial results on Thursday. Newspaper advertising revenue is falling, the movie season hasn’t looked so hot so far, MySpace is unlikely to friend Facebook, the euro and the pound are hurting European operations, DVDs are dying and cable networks revenue doesn’t look like it will be able to compensate.

On top of all that, people are beginning to wonder if the company will announce a writedown, and how soon. My story, which ran on Friday, says the newspaper business looks ripe for a writedown, and quotes Pali Capital analyst RIch Greenfield saying that part of the company’s problem is Murdoch’s sentimental attachment to old media:

If Murdoch wants to keep the business healthy, it is time to make “hard decisions” and prune older media like papers, Pali Capital analyst Rich Greenfield said.

Obama greenlights analog TV for another season

After all the excitement, endless public service announcement ads and electronics retailers salivating over anticipated high-definition TV sales, it turns out that the United States might not be switching to digital television just yet.

President-elect Barack Obama is backing a move to delay a mandatory switch to digital TV signals on Feb. 17 because viewers might not be prepared. Also, the government has run out of $40 coupons to help pay for converter boxes.

The idea that as many as 8 million homes (according to Nielsen data) might lose TV reception in a few weeks is not the kind of headache a new White House administration wants to deal with so it’s perhaps not surprising talk of a delay, possibly up to four months, is gathering support.

Viacom, Time Warner Cable help get people out of the house

Viacom and Time Warner Cable are doing their best to make sure that television addicts around the country get a chance to go outside and stretch their legs come New Year’s Day. Of course, the reason they’re doing their part for physical fitness has little to do with ensuring the health of their viewers.******As Reuters reports, Viacom — the company run by financially challenged media mogul Sumner Redstone — provides programming to cable networks like Time Warner Cable for a fee. Now we’re at a time when Viacom and Time Warner Cable are renegotiating the fee, a regular occurrence. Equally regular are the disputes that arise as the negotiators try to determine what a fair price is.******The ultimate loser turns out to be you, the faithful TV watcher, because the last resort of companies like Viacom is to pull their programs off the air. The idea is that sends watchers into paroxysms of rage, usually directed at the cable company that they give all their money to every month. Eventually, the idea goes, the cable company cries Uncle! and agrees to pay more money to bring you the programming. Yes, your bill goes up too, as it always does.******Here’s a sample of what will stop being broadcast on Jan. 1: Dora the Explorer, SpongeBob SquarePants, The Colbert Report, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Hills.******And here’s a sample of the pre-packaged righteous indignation that you hear at times like this from the companies:***

Viacom: Time Warner Cable has dismissed our efforts at a fair compromise… As a result, we are sorry to say that for Time Warner Cable customers our networks will go dark as of 12:01 on January 1st.

***

Time Warner Cable, via spokesman Alex Dudley: “It just smacks of desperation from a company that is trying to make up for a failing business model on our subscribers’ backs, and we’re not going to take it.”

******Don’t worry C-SPAN will continue uninterrupted.******Keep an eye on***

    *** Speaking of cable, the 24-hour news channels got record ratings this year, though it looks like they would have made Obama race against McCain for another year, if just to keep them relevant until the financial crisis is expected to ease. (Los Angeles Times)

    *** The Village Voice continues to shed the names that made its name so famous. The latest axe casualty is Nat Hentoff, the influential jazz critic who started there in 1958. Sketches of Pain, anyone? (The New York Times)

    *** Vicki Iseman, intentionally or not, was kind enough to wait until after John McCain lost his 2008 presidential bid to sue The New York Times over its February 2008 article that the lobbyist said suggested that she and the Arizona senator were carrying on inappropriately in more ways than one. (Reuters)

    ***

from Summit Notebook:

Time Warner Cable and the Audacity of Hope

It's not every day that you have a top executive in big business talk about how nice it will be to see the back of the Bush administration. Republican presidencies typically tout their adherence to free markets, unbridled capitalism and, most importantly, a smaller pile of what corporations often consider burdensome regulations. That isn't what they usually expect from Democratic administrations, even ones led by Barack Obama.

That's why we thought it so interesting that Time Warner Cable's chief financial officer, Rob Marcus, is happy for some turnover at the Federal Communications Commission. It is the FCC, after all, that has to approve some key licenses for Time Warner Cable's split from its majority owner, Time Warner Inc. For some reason, the FCC can't seem to find room on its schedule to do that, and that seems to have irked Marcus. It is, after all, preventing the two companies from separating by the time Time Warner Cable said it would.

"There's nothing substantive that has currently arisen in connection with the FCC approval. They just haven't put it on the agenda," he told the Reuters Media Summit in New York on Monday.

Ditch cable, save for a flat-screen TV?

Everyone wants to save money in these troubled economic times. For those of you craving a flat-panel TV, Bernstein Research suggests you might be able to afford a “nice” LCD model if you cancel your cable bill and utilize free Web video sites like Hulu.com for a year.

In the report “The Nouveau Broke – Hitchhiker’s Guide to a Free LCD TV,” analyst Jeff Evenson says IP video will eventually account for at least 80 percent of all video viewed globally as college students, recent graduates, and young adults — equipped with computers and broadband Internet — find cable less necessary.

The economic crisis could accelerate Web video adoption, he writes:

Some consumers may decide to reduce expenses by canceling video subscriptions (e.g., cable) and viewing content over the Internet … we conclude that making the switch could easily pay for a “nice” LCD TV in under a year if consumers utilize advertising-supported content and 3 years with reasonable use of “for fee” downloads.

Take cover: Forecast darkens for cable spending

storm-clouds.jpgAnybody out there in TV land riding an Olympic buzz (NBC’s ratings have been scorching) will be brought back down to earth by these numbers from SNL Kagan.

Cable TV ad revenue is forecast to grow at just 4.7 percent in 2009, the firm says. That compares to growth of about up 10 percent for 2008, when cable has been one of the few bright spots for media.  Or as paidContent sums it up, ”This year appears bad enough for media revenues, but for cable TV, 2009 is nothing to look forward to.”

The SNL Kagan numbers back up concerns that were voiced in an article by Reuters’ Kenneth Li after Viacom’s quarterly earnings report last month.

Cable TV ads didn’t crater in Q2 – Pali

It looks like cable networks advertising held up quite well, despite investors fears, says Pali Research’s Richard Greenfield.

“We are encouraged that all but two reported double-digit increases in advertising revenues; particularly in light of the weakening economic environment,” he writes on his blog, citing quarterly earnings reports. He expects growth to slow in the third quarter and a pick-up in the fourth.

His comments echo those of Gabelli & Co associate portfolio manager Larry Haverty, with whom we spoke right after Viacom reported a sharp fall-off in second quarter ad revenue at MTV Networks.

Comcast FCC decision: the reactions

kevinmartinfcc.jpgThe U.S. Federal Communications Commission today ordered the largest U.S. cable TV operator Comcast Corp to change how it manages its broadband network. The regulator concluded that some of Comcast’s tactics unreasonably restrict Internet users who share movies and other material.

The 3 to 2 decision supported by two Democrat commissioners and the Republican chairman,  is precedent-setting. It could kick-start a long-simmering ‘net neutrality’ debate between advocates, who believe Internet access should always be open without interference, and some Internet service providers, who believe they should be allowed to manage Internet delivery in order to provide the best service to all users. The FCC seemed to support the former group.

“Subscribers should be able to go where they want, when they want, and generally use the Internet in any legal means,” FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said in a statement.