Media-sector investors had much more to gossip about at this year's UBS Global Media and Communications Conference in New York than during last year's chilly confab, which was dominated by talk of defaults and downgrades. The effects of Comcast-NBC Universal, the Time Warner-AOL split, and even Tiger Woods' own mergers and acquisitions served up food for thought that was infinitely more appetizing than sluggish credit ratings.
But if you went to the conference looking for answers, you were either guilty of naïveté or foolish optimism. As usual, more questions were posed than answered. Is bigger better? Does content need to marry distribution? Is the ad market really getting better?
Despite the ebullience whipped up by the Comcast Corp. deal for NBC Universal, the specter of AOL and its disastrous marriage with Time Warner loomed large. Executives from both firms were eager to point out that some media mergers had worked, such as Time Warner-Turner and News Corp.-DirecTV.
CBS CEO Leslie Moonves, who described the Comcast-NBCU get-together as “the first major deal since AOL-Time Warner,” quipped, “I'm sure Brian [Roberts] expects it will come out a little better.” He also got in a few digs about the Comcast chief admitting that he's happy to pay retrans now that he's got a broadcast network in his sights.
On Dec. 9, Time Warner's erstwhile CEO Gerald Levin popped up on Fox Business Network to defend the AOL-Time Warner deal 10 years after the fact. Curiously, though, his words rang true. “I don't regret the concept underlying the transaction,” he maintained. “I obviously regret the aftermath. The guiding principal was a digital makeover of an old-media company.” And that's what every firm at the conference is wrestling with: making it pay in times of what Levin describes as the “rolling thunder coming from the Internet.”
Still, Discovery Communications CEO David Zaslav, who has largely sworn off providing longform content to the Web, had a few words to say about the firm's successes online. “Our strategy has shifted,” he said. “We're leaning in to new platforms as an opportunity to build market share.” But he was quick to add, “We're still not making money, but the focus is to keep an eye on those platforms.”
Media executives are focusing on their tent-pole franchises. Developing markets will see plus signs, however, and that's leading all big-media honchos to see what they can grow overseas. Carey suggested that India is top of the list for growth: “In 10 years, it may well be the biggest business in News Corp.”