If you go to The New York Times this week you can see a story trumpeting how well traditional media companies did in 2012
. Supposedly, we are told, these media dinosaurs were going to be destroyed by new media companies in 2012 and that didn't happen, so everything is rosy and there's no danger. Hooray and break out the champagne!
Or, maybe not. Let's dig into this a little bit. Forgive me if this gets a bit detailed. First of all, the measure of "did well" seems to be "had a large increase percentage-wise in stock price". In a year in which the S&P 500 (a benchmark index against which other things tend to be measured) rose 13%, media companies rose a reported 16-43%. That is a good set of numbers. Picking two popular tech companies, Apple and Google I find that Apple (despite hitting a 6-month low mid-2012) is up about 43% and Google is up about 15%. Sound familiar?
Furthermore I see Apple is trading around $525/share and Google is trading around $733/share today. In case you've forgotten basic math - which it appears the Times has - a 15% rise in a $730 stock is a LOT more than a 15% rise in a $58/share stock (which is where Viacom appears to be today). Yes, percentage rises matter and yes performance compared to the S&P is an interesting number, but let's be realistic here.
It's worth digging into what, exactly, is powering this rise in the old-media companys' stock prices and it's two things. One is that they're using their cash to buy back stock and pay dividends. Tech companies - even the fantastically profitable ones - still tend not to do that. This makes the old-media company stock more valuable to investors, particular in times of sluggish markets. For those not into financial wonkery, it may be surprising to hear that the markets these days are extremely sluggish, with price volatility at all-time lows and trillions of dollars that used to be invested in the market having moved elsewhere.
So, a lower-priced stock that pays dividends is more attractive to investors than a higher-priced one that does not pay dividends. Not exactly earth-shaking news. More importantly, it tells us exactly nothing about the prospects for the future of these businesses, nor the media models they represent.
Still, it's worth peeling back the covers still a little further, which you can do with an awfully titled article in the Atlantic, Derek Thompson's "How the TV Business Got Rich Off the Thing That Was Going to the Kill It: The Internet". A lot of it is a rehash of the Times story, but I encourage you to scroll down to the graph titled "How Does the Cable Industry Make Its Money?"
The answer: selling Internet. Most people get their IP connections from a cable company, and some cable companies scored big content deals with Internet companies this past year that further increased their bottom lines. Other companies (*cough*NewsCorp*cough*) did internal reorganizations to wall off big money-losing parts of their business. The result is a situation in which non-old-media revenue is propping up old-media companies. The broadband you're buying from that cable company comes with a hefty mark-up, and is likely a protected near-monopoly. Only a tiny fraction of the country has any choice in where to get Internet service.
All that fat-margin IP revenue serves to mask the fact that the television and cable-channel business is a dying enterprise. Both Thompson and Carr (Times) are careful to hedge their stories in the final 'grafs but I'll say it flat-out: old media companies will change or become walking dead in 2013-2014 and buried soon thereafter.