The flesh-eating zombies in AMC’s hit television series “The Walking Dead” are shambling into a land of even bigger monsters.
AMC’s parent company, AMC Networks, along with a slew of other cable television groups, including Discovery Communications, Scripps Networks and Crown Media, are bracing for profound changes as a series of momentous mergers are set to transform the media world.
The transactions would create ever-larger conglomerates, leaving smaller cable television network groups more vulnerable as independent companies, industry executives and analysts say. And questions loom as to whether these networks will also be gobbled up by the biggest players, or if the competitive landscape will push some of them off a television dial that is already crowded.
“The more these already large companies become even larger and have more market power, it just shuts down the opportunity for smaller networks that just don’t have the leverage,” said Eric Sherman, chief executive of Veria Living, an independent health and wellness cable network available in several major U.S. markets. He said it would be difficult to go it alone should the pending deals be consummated and that he was open to exploring a strategic partnership with another company.
Those pending deals are the proposed $45 billion merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable and the $48.5 billion merger between AT&T and DirecTV, which would create cable and satellite giants that could force smaller networks to accept lower fees for their programming. And 21st Century Fox’s $80 billion pursuit of Time Warner, unveiled last week, would create a rival television and film behemoth with tremendous negotiating power over cable and satellite providers, corporate advertisers and Hollywood talent.
These transformational deals are just one of several threats facing the smaller cable television network groups. The proliferation of media has made attracting audiences increasingly difficult. The advertising market is sluggish. Perhaps most worrisome are the direct challenges from Silicon Valley and Seattle, as Netflix, Google’s YouTube and Amazon continue their aggressive expansion into original programming.
“When big companies get even bigger and you are subscale, you lose a lot of negotiating power,” said Amy Yong, a media analyst with Macquarie. “But in media, there just are so many egos that you don’t know who is going to buy and who is going to sell.”
With media industry merger-and-acquisitions activity reaching a fevered pitch, it would seem that every smaller cable network group is in play. Indeed, before making its move for Time Warner, 21st Century Fox took a look at buying a smaller group such as Scripps or the Spanish-language broadcaster Univision, according to a person briefed on the deal.
But Wall Street advisers are skeptical that any of the big media companies — Disney, Comcast, Fox, Time Warner, CBS, Viacom — will try to buy the likes of AMC, Crown Media or Starz.
None of the larger companies are suffering from a lack of size; Disney, for example, has a market value of about $150 billion. Each has a combination of cable or broadcast assets that allows it to negotiate favorable rates with cable and satellite operators. Adding smaller cable network groups would give the big companies no more leverage than they already have. Moreover, none of them want to appear desperate by making a land grab, and several are constrained for their own reasons.
Comcast, the cable operator and owner of NBCUniversal, is focused on winning approval for its acquisition of Time Warner Cable. 21st Century Fox and Time Warner are at a standstill after their brief talks. And CBS and Viacom each believe they are strong enough on their own, and are unlikely to change hands while under the control of billionaire media mogul Sumner Redstone.
For smaller cable network groups, that leaves few obvious options. Scripps, owner of the Food Network and HGTV, has had a “for sale” sign on its door for years, media executives say. Discovery Communications is said to have held talks about combining with Scripps.
Some advisers believe that Scripps, which has a stock market value of about $12 billion, could get bigger by acquiring the likes of AMC, Crown Media or Starz. But even combined, those assets would not have the clout of the larger players.
AMC, the home of hit shows like “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad” and “The Walking Dead,” is perhaps the most alluring target of the bunch. In addition to its namesake network, the company, which has a stock market value of about $4.7 billion, owns and operates several other channels, including SundanceTV and IFC, as well as IFC Films, which released the critically acclaimed film “Boyhood” this month. One potential hindrance to its long-term value, according Wall Street advisers, is that while it participates on the back end of some shows, such as “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad,” it licenses them from entertainment studios.
Positioned between the smaller players and the media giants is Discovery Communications, valued at nearly $30 billion.
Discovery has a suite of well-regarded cable networks, including the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet, but it has also hedged itself with an aggressive international strategy. By developing robust global distribution, Discovery’s chief executive, David M. Zaslav, has made the company less reliant on American cable and satellite operators and put it in a position to chart its own course.
Absent any deal activity, the smaller cable network groups are meeting with cable and satellite companies in hopes of negotiating favorable rates before the proposed acquisitions are made, media executives said. At the same time, they are descending on Washington to outline their plight to regulators and lawmakers reviewing the proposed mergers. The hope is that conditions would be added to the deals to level the playing field for smaller or independent cable networks.
The smaller network groups are also increasing their investment in original series, hoping to create hit shows that will command lucrative distribution and advertising dollars.
“Those who produce great content certainly will have a place regardless of the delivery system, regardless of how the landscape shakes out,” said William J. Abbott, chief executive of Crown Media. Crown, which owns the Hallmark Channel, is trying to carve out a niche with original series, holiday movies and specials.
“You really need to have an ability to present something very different when there are so many options out there,” he said.