MediaFile

More see pressure building on CBS dividend

CBS has made a big deal about its dividend. Just three months ago, Chief Executive Les Moonves made clear his commitment to the quarterly payout to shareholders, who, by the way, have seen the stock fall nearly 75 percent in the last 12 months. Yep, 75 percent.

“The dividend is front and center in our strategy to return value to our shareholders” Moonves said on a late October conference call.

Lately, though, doubts about CBS’s ability to keep up the dividend appear to be spreading (to be fair, a number on Wall Street have questioned the payouts for quite some time).  First, on Monday, Sanford Bernstein  analyst Michael Nathanson cut his rating to “underperform” and warned that CBS might have to “drastically” reduce the dividend.

Now we get the following from Barrington Research’s Jim Goss, who cut his rating on the stock as well as 2009 earnings estimates. Here are some highlights:

Our new estimate progression suggests that it will likely take several years to restore the earnings level we estimate CBS achieved in 2008. Consequently, while we felt the board might be successful in maintaining its $1.06 annual dividend rate through a temporary shortfall in profitability, we now feel the rough patch will be longer, and the high level of dividend payment will become more difficult to justify. The arguments have created a tug of war between an exceptional return of cash to shareholders, versus a more prudent posture that could conserve cash to repay debt. The latter strategy would strengthen CBS’ financial position and reduce risk to its investment grade credit rating.

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)

    ***

Redstone’s last picture show

Media mogul Sumner Redstone appears to be sticking with his decision to not sell more shares in Viacom and CBS. Here’s the Financial Times:

Media mogul Sumner Redstone has reached agreement with his daughter, Shari, to put some of National Amusement’s 1,500 cinemas on the block rather than the entire division, as part of debt-restructuring discussions to avoid selling more shares of Viacom and CBS, according to people familiar with the matter.

If lenders agree, the plan would clear the way to sell a part of the US group and 19 theatres in the UK. A prospectus is not expected to be released until early January, one person familiar with the discussions said.

Sports and economy square off

Sorting out what the economic downturn means for the sports world has become something of a sport itself.

Will consumers’ need to escape with some old-fashioned football trump their anxiety about shelling out hard-earned money for tickets, parking and hotdogs at the game?

Will TV broadcasters cash in on higher ratings, as consumers skip more expensive entertainment to spend time at home watching baseball or basketball on television? Or has devastation across the financial services and auto industries — two big advertisers in sports — doomed TV broadcasters regardless of audience size?

It’s Midway or the highway for Redstone

Sumner Redstone is selling low — way low. Here’s The Wall Street Journal with the news:

In an effort to help resolve his debt problems, Sumner Redstone has sold his controlling stake in videogame company Midway Games Inc to a private investor.

Mr. Redstone’s holding company, National Amusements Inc., is expected to announce Monday that it sold its 87% stake in Midway to investor Mark Thomas, a move that represents a significant loss on the media mogul’s investment but secures a hefty tax benefit as he negotiates other asset sales.

Ouch! A bad day in the market for Redstone

This is shaping up as a bad day for Sumner Redstone — and he’s had a few of those lately — at least where his investments are concerned. Check out share prices of his three major holdings: CBS down 17 percent and Viacom down 11 percent. Midway Games takes first (or last) prize: down 34 percent.

All this wreckage puts more pressure on National Amusements, Redstone’s privately held company and investment vehicle. Recall, last month National Amusements ran into trouble with its banks when it could no longer maintain certain debt-to-asset ratios because the value of its investments in CBS and Viacom had fallen so sharply.

These days, National Amusements is trying to work out new agreements with its banks, and many analysts believe it will have to sell some assets to pay down debt coming due in December. Pali Research’s Rich Greenfield is one of them.

Google and Microsoft tangle again — over Verizon

Chalk one up for Microsoft — sort of.

If today’s report in the Wall Street Journal is right, then Microsoft is about to land an agreement with Verizon Wireless to become the default search provider on its cellphones.

In its battle with Google, that should count as a win for Microsoft, even if the company had to offer much, much better terms than its rival.

From the article: “Verizon is tilting toward Microsoft because the software giant is offering significantly better financial incentives, but the telecom company is still in discussions with Google and the situation is fluid with both companies, these people said.”

Redstone + Viacom = True Love Always

A couple of things we know about Viacom in the aftermath of its earnings report: Sumner Redstone is madly in love with the media company, and he is still not selling any more shares.

It’s interesting that Redstone has repeatedly insisted that he won’t sell any more shares in Viacom or CBS to take care of the debt problems at his privately-held National Amusements (Recall, he sold about $230 million of stock in Viacom and CBS last month).

Sure, he’s assuaging the immediate concerns of investors, who obviously don’t want to see more shares on the open market. But he’s also backing himself into a corner (of course, he can always do what he wants, even sell shares after he said he wouldn’t, but he does have a reputation to think about).

Take my savings — but not my mediocre TV shows

No doubt about it, the financial crisis has been tough on the media business. Just ask Sumner Redstone, the folks over at the Associated Press, or anyone on Madison Avenue.

Then there are some of the poorly rated television shows to consider… The Hollywood Reporter writes that thanks to the economic downturn, the broadcast networks could play it safe and order full-seasons of some low-rated programs rather than replace them with new series.

There are a number of reasons for this, one of which is that it costs money to order and market a new series.

Sumner Redstone: World could end tomorrow!

Step off — CBS and Viacom are not for sale!

That comes courtesy of Sumner Redstone, who should know since he holds a controlling stake in both of the media companies. Here’s what he told the Wall Street Journal in an interview:

Asked whether he would consider selling one of the companies, Mr. Redstone said: “Not a chance. I will not sell Viacom and I will not sell CBS. They’re two great companies.” He added: “We have no intention to sell any more stock and I’m decisive about that.”

Redstone’s interview with the Journal should help clear the air on much recent speculation about the future of Viacom and CBS — both suffering badly in the stock market. In the last month, shares of Viacom have dropped about 30 percent, while CBS shares have fallen a staggering 45 percent.