Monday, February 17, 2014

Comcast pursues Time Warner

Several suitors have been pursuing Time Warner over the last few months.  It looks like Comcast is the likely winner, offering to purchase the second-largest cable operator for $45 billion.

But the deal is more about broadband than cable.  The addition of Time Warner broadband customers would give Comcast more than 33 million broadband subscribers and what amounted to $18 billion in subscription revenues in 2013.  That's about half of current broadband subscribers.  And broadband revenues are growing faster than cable video, with higher profit margins (around 90 percent).  The cable side, in fact is in trouble, losing customers and facing and increasing profit squeeze.

The deal is also about positioning Comcast for the future and the likely radical transformation of the video signal delivery business.  Local stations and cable networks keep pushing licensing fees higher and higher in search of revenues to replace stagnant (although still quite large) TV advertising dollars.  And then there's the continuing advances in IP video streaming, and changing audience habits.   Comcast is one of the few TV companies doing R&D - in fact, they have the largest R&D presence in the industry - and much of that effort is geared towards positioning the firm for the developing IP streaming, digital broadcast innovations (such as Aereo and multicasting), and mobile video explosions.

Those under 25 are spending less time watching traditional live TV - considerably less.  Delayed viewing and consumption of IP-video streams from an increasing variety of high-quality online video services (i.e. Netflix), as well as gaming, are eating up an increasing share of viewer's attention.  Advances in mobile, in the meantime, are creating new opportunities for TV viewing - although delays in implementing "TV Everywhere" has slowed cable's ability to tap into that new market.  Experts are now expecting a major transformation in TV viewing, even while unsure just what kind of TV market will eventually emerge from the growing chaos.

I'd be remiss, though, if I didn't point out the regulatory roadblocks in the way of the merger.  After all, the deal would combine the two largest cable system operators in the U.S., each of whom also owns a wide range of other media outlets, including broadcast networks, cable networks, film & video production and distribution outlets, publishing, etc.  Both are often listed among the world's 10 largest media conglomerates.  While there's not a lot of direct competition between the two cable and broadband operations (they're more local monopolies, increasingly challenged by telco and broadband operators like AT&T, Verizon, and Google), media is an area where just being large is considered problematic.  More problematic on an anti-competitive basis would be many of the other media components, which are arguably more directly competitive with one another.  And then there's the issue of Comcast's data caps and their interference with (slowing down) of unaffiliated video streaming services - the one glaring anti-competitive behavior fueling Network Neutrality debates. There's lots of reasons the deal might not be approved and consummated.

Even if the FTC doesn't knock the deal down in terms of sheer size and concentration, there will need to be a lot of negotiations and deals to meet the antitrust concerns of all the various markets and media elements in play.

(Let me also point interested readers to Ken Doctor's analysis of the deal and the fundamental issues confronting cable systems like Comcast and Time Warner Cable.  The Newsonomics of Comcast's deal and our digital wallets)

Sources -  If Comcast buys Time Warner, TV could change forever,  GigaOm
The Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger is not a marriage made to last, The Guardian

edited to add last graph and link (2/17/14)

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