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Media Merger Mania: Feverish Speculation About Potential Takeovers Circles Viacom, Lionsgate

Everybody’s talking to everybody — but who’s going to pull the trigger?

Not a day has gone by since 2018 dawned without a flurry of rumors about a major media M&A deal gaining steam. Disney established the tone in the final weeks of 2017 by setting a market-jolting $52.4 billion deal to buy a big chunk of 21st Century Fox.

Three weeks into the year, Lionsgate has been the target of daily takeover chatter, putting its shares on a seesaw that has yielded a 5% gain since Jan. 2.

CBS Corp. and Viacom are being gently nudged back to the altar by controlling shareholder Shari Redstone. Time Warner continues to be a source of speculation amid uncertainty about the timing and outcome of the antitrust trial over its $85.4 billion merger with AT&T.

Sony Pictures Entertainment has declared itself to be in the market for deals, defying once again the speculation that its Japanese parent company has tired of Hollywood. Verizon is rumored to be kicking tires all over town as it tries to figure out a growth strategy that capitalizes on its formidable wireless network.

The hunger for deals is palpable. But for all the heated talk, there’s still an abundance of caution. This reflects the nervousness about making the right bet on the shape of the business in the future. Traditional Hollywood is scared witless about the rise of the FAANG giants (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google). The tech titans may not have all the answers when it comes to a cohesive entertainment strategy, but they do have the resources to figure it out on a trial-and-error basis.

“We’re a tiny little minnow fighting against all these gigantic companies,” said Tony Vinciquerra, chairman-CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment. “There are six major film studios today. I think in a couple of years, it’ll be down to three or four.”

Apple’s deep dive, at long last, into original production is further raising the bar for talent paydays that have been skyrocketing thanks to the deep pockets of Netflix and Amazon. It’s no wonder old Hollywood feels in grave danger of being eclipsed at its own game.

“The pace of change has never been this incredible,” said Ben Swinburne, managing director and head of media research for Morgan Stanley. Swinburne and three other top showbiz analysts offered thoughts on the future of the business during a Jan. 16 session at the NATPE conference in Miami.

Michael Nathanson, partner in MoffettNathanson Research, argued that the convergence of Silicon Valley and Hollywood that has been anticipated for 20-plus years is finally at hand.

“The [media] industry had always worked in very protected lanes,” Nathanson said.
In the ecosystem of studios, networks, MVPDs and exhibitors, each constituency carved out its turf and worked together as needed to create and distribute content as the ultimate endgame.

Not anymore.

Amazon and Facebook see entertainment content as a means to advance larger goals — retail sales in the case of Amazon, user stickiness in the case of Facebook. And they have the scale to produce, distribute and exploit through multiple windows on a global basis. These walled gardens have Hollywood wondering if they will be elbowed out of the way.

“People are no longer staying in their appointed lanes,” Nathanson said.

For Disney, the solution is to stockpile more content-generating ammunition and make a run at building its own direct-to-consumer Garden of Streaming Eden. Disney, it is widely acknowledged, is the traditional media conglom with the IP and the market muscle to rise to the challenge. But for the rest of the biz, getting bigger in challenged businesses may not be better.

The axiom popularized by Sumner Redstone in the 1980s and ’90s — “Content is king” — may not be the guiding principle of the future.

“It’s really unclear who is going to be king and who is going to be queen in the next decade or so,” said Amy Yong of Macquarie Research.

Ricky Van Veen, Facebook’s head of global creative strategy, who is steering the social media giant’s move into TV-esque content, underscored Yong’s sentiment in his recent presentation at NATPE about the fledgling Facebook Watch effort. Facebook Watch’s original shows are designed to create even more affinity groups within the vast expanse of the platform.

“There’s so much you can do when you have content and conversation happening at scale on the same platform,” he said.

For now, however, as success in the content biz is defined by viewership and buzzy hits, the tech giants still have a need for the expertise that is mostly found down south in the Golden State.

Van Veen noted in his presentation that Facebook execs were surprised to learn that Facebook Watch viewers wanted programs to run longer than 10 minutes or less. That was contrary to Silicon Valley’s conventional wisdom about how social media-reared teenagers and young adults watch video on a non-TV platform.

Amazon and Netflix have also had to learn some hard lessons about how to manage an expansive programming strategy. Throwing money at the creative community is a start, but at some point it takes vision and skill to build a brand.

As such, no one reading the tea leaves in media would be surprised if the M&A rumors began to reinforce the convergence theme. Could Apple buy Disney? Will Google knock on Lionsgate’s door? Might Netflix decide to binge on Sony Pictures?

The motivation may increase as the inevitable failures pile up.

“You can’t algorithm or brute-force your way into successful programming, no matter how much money you have,” Swinburne said.

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