Let’s get right into Part II of my a quest to find SuperCBS’ competitive advantage. (Reminder: SuperCBS is my nickname for ViacomCBS.)
Competitive Advantage: Become a Content Arm’s Dealer
I’ll be honest, I didn’t come up with this on my own. I first read it on Twitter by Rich Greenfield. Then I heard it from Matt Belloni and Kim Masters on The Business. The logic goes, with 140,000 episodes of television and 3,600 movies, the combined ViacomCBS has the content people already need for their libraries. Moreover, they’ve been making TV and film for decades. So as new entrants like Amazon and Apple struggle to make good shows, CBS already knows how to do that. They boast 750 shows currently in production or ordered.
Reading their press release announcing the merger makes one even more inclined to consider this position. They clearly think their advantage is content production. Most of the facts from above came from that announcement.
Quantifying the upside here is fairly difficult because you need to separate how many shows SuperCBS will sell to its linear channels, its digital outlets and then other folks. Or what happens to their movie output deals. (For instance, Paramount is already making some films for Netflix.) Instead, the main opportunity is feeding the hunger for content from people like Apple, Amazon and Netflix. They’re buying lots of shows to air globally. It’s a sellers market. You should be able to make money off that.
However, as they grow, Netflix has pioneered the trend of controlling more and more of a show’s distribution. In return, the streamers like Netflix pay something like 130% of the production budget of a show to have its rights for 5-10 years. Except that Netflix then takes a 30% distribution fee, and can cancel a show at anytime, while keeping the rights in the near term. This means you essentially are selling your content for exactly what you make it for, which is a zero margin business.
The reason that there is even a debate between “distribution versus content” (content is king!), is that everyone wants to be a distributor. The way you make money, the conventional wisdom goes, isn’t to be a content producer, but a distributor. As soon as the FCC relaxed rules on the amount of owned content aired on broadcast channels, all the broadcast channels went to majority self-produced content. As a result, many independent TV producers went out of business by the end of the 1990s
In the TV or movie value chain, the worst place to be (besides being a customer?) Is to be the producer in the middle. They’re squeezed on both ends. The creatives demand increasingly higher payments to work on the shows or films. (Creatives like JJ Abrams, Shonda Rhimes, Ryan Murphy or Benioff & Weiss are the rare commodities in this market.) Meanwhile, the distributors insist on huge margins for simply putting out your content. (The traditional film distribution “fee”, for example is 25-30%. The streamers have similar fees.)
Sure, the TV producer “owns” the content, but if they can’t sell it anywhere else, where does the extra money come from to pay for overhead, studio lots and, eventually, shareholders?
Worse, the biggest upside TV producers had is potentially disappearing. That was syndication revenue, which was a monster. Shows like Friends, The Simpsons and, now, The Big Bang Theory are worth billion dollar pay days. But it required making hundreds of shows to get those handful of hits that could be sold into syndication. (Netflix doesn’t let a lot of shows get that far anymore.) If the bundle falls apart, syndication goes too. Will streaming be as valuable as syndication? I’m skeptical long term.
Making matters even worse, companies like Netflix are moving to owning more of their shows, so they can keep these margins low. (Netflix can say, “Don’t like our deal? Well, we have Benioff & Weiss, why do we need you?”)
Future M&A Needed?
MGM and/or Lionsgate.
If you’re selling content, having valuable libraries will only help you deliver on that value proposition. To go with the arms dealer analogy specifically, MGM is like adding a lot of AK-47s while Lionsgate is a few additional heavy tanks. MGM can bring you Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz while Lionsgate has Twilight and The Hunger Games. Those aren’t bad additions to a streaming library!
Competitive Advantage: Become a Distributor
If I could choose anyone to be in the streaming wars to come, it would be the folks who are distributing the content. My working theory is these distributors will be the best positioned companies to thrive. These distributors are stepping between the “pipes” to become the new multi-channel provider. The people not just selling their own subscription streamer services, but taking 30% off every subscription they sell.
The best way to make money in entertainment? Not even distributor, but distributor of distributors, taking a percentage without doing the hard work of making TV shows. So Amazon, Apple, and Disney won’t just be people owning streaming platforms like Prime Video, Apple Plus and Hulu, but also selling HBO, CBS All-Access and Starz. And taking 30% from each “channel” they sell you. (But not Netflix. No one gets to resell them.)
My quick math is that if you can get to 30 million US subscribers, with an $80 monthly bill, and take 30% of that, well that’s a $8.5 billion dollar business. Add an international business with 50 million subscribers at $40 a month, and you’ve added $15 billion to your top line. Not bad.
The non-monetary upside is considerable too. If my theorizing is correct, the new carriage wars are going to be about distribution on the new distributors. (Article on that here.) Say Disney and CBS are having a tough negotiation over CBS All-Access on Hulu. Well, CBS is in an even stronger position if they can also threaten to drop Disney+ from their distribution platform then if they have to argue just on the merits of CBS All-Access (and Showtime). So if you’re a streamer, owning distribution makes it easier to negotiate with other distributors.