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ViacomCBS Unlikely to Pursue Starz — For Now

CBS may have previously expressed interest in acquiring Lionsgate-owned Starz, but now that the Eye has merged with Viacom, it’s unlikely that the newly formed ViacomCBS would look to actively pursue the premium cabler in the near term.

According to sources close to the situation, there have not been any substantive talks about a potential Starz acquisition since Viacom and CBS became ViacomCBS, and the combined entity is unlikely to explore an acquisition so soon after its own announced mega-merger, which is expected to close at the end of the calendar year.

ViacomCBS will be taking a “highly disciplined” approach to M&A and will not do anything to dilute shareholder value, per someone familiar with the company’s thinking, indicating that the company’s acquisitive strategy going forward will be conservative. Guggenheim Partners analyst Michael Morris noted Wednesday that ViacomCBS would “not entertain value-destructive acquisitions.”

Starz, which was acquired by Lionsgate in 2016 for about $4.4 billion in cash and stock, was in May said to have been the object of potential acquisition discussions at CBS. Programming including “Power” and “Outlander” have proven popular at Starz, which has sought to create content for underserved female, black and Latinx audiences.

More recently reducing Starz’s appeal as an M&A target is Friday’s report from The Information that Comcast is planning to drop the cable channel from its bundle. Comcast and Starz have until the end of the year, when the current pact ends, to decide on their future with or without each other. The television landscape is notably changing — viewers can easily sign up for standalone pay-TV streaming services outside of the linear cable system, and have grown to shun overstuffed traditional bundles — a trend that likely factors into decision-making at cable providers like Comcast and others.

If Comcast drops Starz, SunTrust Robinson Humphrey analyst Matthew Thornton estimates the move would impact the 8 million to 9 million Starz subscribers that get the channel through the cable provider. Starz ended the first quarter of fiscal 2020 with 26.5 million total global subscribers, up 2.6 million from the prior-year Q1.

But a hit to Starz’s linear distribution may not be a doomsday scenario for the premium cabler. Starz’s domestic business may be “fairly mature,” Thornton told Variety, but its subscriber count remains steady, with the company picking up streaming subscribers even as domestic subs drop off. Starz’s domestic over-the-top subs grew 400,000 from the prior quarter to 4.4 million as of Q1 2020, which Lionsgate said was its third-best growth quarter in its history.

And it stands to attract greater average revenue per user (ARPU) from direct subscribers — about $6.62 per user — vs. the $2 or less monthly ARPU from Comcast.

That means that Starz would only need to recoup about 35% of lost subs through its streaming service in order to fully offset any revenue loss from the Comcast deal falling through, he wrote.

And according to an industry source, Starz brings in greater ARPU from its deal with AT&T — which just renewed its carriage agreement to carry Starz and StarzEncore on its cable platforms — than with Comcast.

Thornton believes Starz and Comcast will reach an agreement over the next few months, albeit with “some pricing concessions.”

Amid a crowded, fierce streaming market – one that includes Netflix’s 151 million global subscribers, streaming pure plays Amazon and Hulu, plus four upcoming ready-to-race competitors from WarnerMedia, Disney, Apple and Comcast’s NBCUniversal – Starz’s OTT service is a smaller fish, albeit one that is growing.

The premium cabler, a competitor to Showtime and HBO, has seen its domestic streaming audience grow faster than those two rivals, Starz COO Jeffrey Hirsch told TV critics and journalists at the Television Critics Assn. summer press tour in July.

“Netflix has done a phenomenal job of convincing everybody in this room and everybody on Wall Street that unless you spend $13 billion [on programming], you can’t compete, and you should take your ball and go home,” he said at TCA. “And that’s just not the case.”

Still, SunTrust’s Thornton says that Starz and Lionsgate need to either become bigger or be acquired to truly compete with the bigger conglomerates, and that Starz remains attractive to a buyer that is looking to beef up its distribution or content.

Starz, which is available in over 50 countries, is aiming to harness 15 million to 25 million paid international subscribers by fiscal 2025.

Calling Lionsgate “extremely inexpensive,” Thornton also told Variety that its board members and management team are likely feeling “significant pressure” to unlock the company’s value. Lionsgate shares, as of the end of Wednesday’s trading session, were trading at 2011 levels, a nearly eight-year low.

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