Cable companies are under-leveraged according to Eric Zinterhofer, head of investment group Searchlight and chairman of Charter Communications. Companies leveraged at 2.5 to three times are not working their capital hard enough, he thinks. This view was echoed by Dexter Goei, CEO of pioneering cable investment group Altice, who hinted that Time Warner's CEO Jeff Bewkes could be putting his capital to better use than the share buy-back programme his company is currently engaged in. In a lively investor panel, Bewkes argued that he gauged investment opportunities on future growth potential and claimed he couldn't find a media stock with better potential than his own company.
Skinny bundles also came to the fore as the investors looked to cut high content costs, primarily by dropping second-tier channels. Goei cited the case of Viacom channels, dropped by US cable group Suddenlink, which his company is in the process of buying. In an exchange that doubtless saw channel providers flinch, he said there were other content providers that he would ditch going forward. Zinterhofer cited the example of Liberty's cable assets in Puerto Rico which recently got rid of English-language channels that its largely Spanish-speaking customers were not watching and saw an upswing in TV revenue.
Despite looking hard to cut third-party content costs, cable company direct investment in content looks set to be a key trend in the coming years, with Liberty CEO Mike Fries saying he believed Liberty was under-invested in SVOD and free TV. Liberty recently increased its stake in the UK commercial broadcaster ITV, which itself has invested heavily in production companies over the last decade. Fries noted that Liberty was also looking to address its under-investment in direct SVOD content. Looking to the future of M&A activity in the industry, Zinterhofer highlighted opportunities for consolidation in Latin American cable, with the region's single language being a huge benefit. LionTree CEO Aryeh Bourkoff, also noted that cross-border M&A would be a key emerging trend.
The role of mobile in the cable product mix was highlighted as key to ARPU growth and bundling flexibility by Liberty's Fries, while Altice's Goei said that, while he was concerned about ARPU growth, he was more concerned about the contribution margin of additional service lines. Melita CEO Andrei Torriano noted the data traffic off-load benefits of combining a Wi-Fi network with a bundled mobile service and described how the Maltese cable operator had seen its revenue mix evolve to the point where just 25% of income now comes from traditional TV services.
Ampere Research Director Guy Bisson moderating a panel on cable-telco convergence at CTAM 2015
Channel groups AMC and Scripps had a strong presence at the show as their executives navigate the rapidly evolving opportunities presented by multiscreen, Over-the-Top (OTT) and direct-to-consumer. Scripps' UK & EMEA MD Phillip Luff noted that the channel group had no plans to go direct-to-consumer, but online video platforms are providing plenty of new opportunity. Scripps VP Digital, Kate Bradshaw said that Facebook was exploding as a video platform for the group's content. Operators have yet to see a major impact on their traditional customer bases from SVOD. Time Warner's Jeff Bewkes claimed cable cannibalization by HBO Now was less than one per cent but said he had no plans to launch the service internationally.
The threat of new OTT players to traditional broadcasters was put into perspective by ProSieben's Chief Office Group Content Markus Frerker who said he was more worried by Amazon than Netflix because the e-commerce giant never needs to make money from content. Instead it can use content services as a marketing cost to drive its huge e-commerce business. Original production has been a headline grabber of late, driven by high-profile investments by Netflix and Amazon, but Frerker noted that in certain markets, Netflix couldn't even use its own productions in first window because they had already been sold to local broadcasters. ProSieben, which owned the rights to House of Cards, found the show under-performed and was eventually moved to a graveyard slot. Frerker was unequivocal, saying he knew of no other show that had done as badly for his channel.
Eurosummit 2015, organised by Amethyst Events, was the last, with the event due to merge with Cable Europe's Cable Congress in 2016. Content and marketing will thus become an increasingly important part of that show.