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The 3 Digital Media Mega-Deals That Defined the Year (Guest Column)

2014 proved to be a transformational year for content-driven digital media and tech investment. What started as a year in which SoCal investors longed for credibility and redemption for their long-held faith in the age-old adage “content is king” (in an increasingly tech-driven world), ended as a year of affirmation via a parade of multibillion-dollar exits.

Disney unlocked this door first on the video side of the house with its $500 million-$950 million purchase of leading multichannel network (MCN) Maker Studios. But, then others rushed the stage. Facebook bought virtual-reality (V/R) company Oculus Rift – and its initial gaming applications — for $2 billion; and Apple Beat(s) the drum of music for $3 billion. These three deals alone totaled nearly $6 billion and defined a millennial-driven year in digital media.

Let’s start with Disney buying Maker Studios for up to nearly $1 billion. “Why?” you ask.

Stop scratching your head. First, let’s be clear, there is no one “right” price for anything. Subjectivity permeates all deals, especially Silicon Valley-based tech deals that never raise eyebrows, even when mass dollars chase non-existent revenues. Second, scarcity plays a massive role in most strategic deals. Disney clearly concluded that Maker Studios — amongst the very top MCNs in terms of reach, content and talent depth — best “fit” its strategic needs. So, Disney paid up so that others couldn’t double down. Only time will tell of course if its gamble ultimately pays off.

But, think about Disney’s underlying motivation to do the deal – and applaud it. Disney recognized what many (most?) in the traditional media business still do not – i.e., that we now live in a fundamentally different multi-platform media world. And, millennials – the most highly valued demographic by marketers — aren’t where they used to be. They are now glued to the new television sets – to an entirely new platform — i.e., their smartphones. THAT is where they consume and share content. Voraciously. And, new platforms that showcase new story-telling demand new forms of digital-first content development and distribution that Disney felt it was not best equipped to do.

Enter Maker Studios – a leading digital-first new media company with short-form mobile-friendly video in its DNA and an immediate critical mass of content. Sprinkle in a bit of Disney magic – its priceless cast of characters to star (wars, anyone?) in those new stories – and you may really have something. That’s the dream, and Disney immediately became an “A” player in this MCN game with one massive “ka-ching” heard around the media world.

Expect other major studios to follow Disney’s lead throughout 2015 with a continuing wave of MCN M&A activity.

Next up, Facebook’s acquisition of SoCal-based virtual reality (V/R) company Oculus Rift for $2 billion. Here we seemingly follow a Silicon Valley-esque “tale as old as time” – a tech company with no revenues, but heaps of hype (this time, justified) and scarcity (hence, the huge exit). But, make no mistake, this is no average Silicon Valley tech company. This one is dressed up in all kind of SoCal style and swagger, because Oculus is content-driven through and through – ready to shake up the increasingly rich media worlds of story-telling (video, gaming) by taking those experiences to entirely different immersive levels.

And there’s the rub for Facebook. Like Disney facing an unknown new multi-platform media world to reach millennials, Facebook increasingly faces a new rich media reality in which it must play – but doesn’t fully understand — in order to stay relevant. That means the dual mass markets of digital video (where it is spending voraciously right now to become a real challenger to YouTube as the “go-to” video platform – expect MCN M&A soon) and gaming. V/R is that big bet on an entirely new platform for story-telling that offers the potential to transform both worlds. Facebook needed to pay up for this “one-of-a-kind” Oculus opportunity to shut up other contenders.

Expect an Oculus under the tree of every heavy-duty gamer next Xmas, and expect story-telling, compelling central characters, and new enabling platforms to be front and center for strategic moves in the gaming world in 2015.

Finally, don’t forget the power of music. Apple certainly didn’t. It ventured where it had never gone before, paying up big ($3 billion, nearly 8X its largest previous acquisition) to buy and feature a brand not its own (for the first time). Why? Certainly not just for the revenues (although don’t forget that Beats generated between $1-$1.5 billion in revenues on its own).

Here, once again, we have our old friends of strategic “fit” and scarcity. Beats had what Apple needed – i.e., a millennial-driven multi-platform music service and brand, as well as critical artist relations. Beats also made sense to Apple as a core business. Unlike any other company offering a leading digital music service, Beats also fundamentally is a hardware company that features its “Beats Music” service as the Trojan Horse to drive headphone sales. Sound familiar? It should. That’s precisely Apple’s playbook. Beats stole it. Apple wanted it back! Apple paid Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine big to take them off their IPO path and divert Beats’ millennials (and inevitable billions) to Cupertino.

Look for other similar content-driven Trojan Horse-type strategic acquisitions next year.

Three deals – averaging $2 billion each – across video, gaming and music. Each represents both a new appreciation of the value of content and new exciting possibilities for creators of that content enabled by new technology. Each also portends more millennial-fueled content-driven mega-deals to come in 2015 in this new “golden age.”

Peter Csathy is CEO of business accelerator and development firm Manatt Digital Media, where he also serves as a venture capitalist. He is a blogger who frequently writes for Variety and other leading digital media and technology publications.

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