NEW YORK – A federal appeals court may have fired the starting gun for dealmakers in the media business when it relaxed ownership rules in the cable and broadcasting industries. But analysts cautioned Wednesday that the race is a marathon, not a sprint.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Tuesday struck down a rule that prevented a company from owning a cable system and broadcast television stations in the same market, and ordered regulators to beef up their arguments for broadcast ownership limits or see them wiped out.
Theoretically, this means that cable behemoths like AOL Time Warner Inc.and Comcast Corp. could get get into broadcast television and reach even more viewers for their programs and advertising.
If the broadcast cap, which is currently at 35 percent, is removed, CBS owner Viacom Inc. and Fox Entertainment Group , which is controlled by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., could pick up more television stations to extend their U.S. distribution.
BIG BANG THEORY DISPUTED
But just because media companies can, it doesn't mean they will, analysts say.
"This isn't going to be a big bang," said Soundview Technology analyst Jordan Rohan. "It's going to be more evolutionary than revolutionary."
Many media companies have already pulled off or are in the process of cementing huge deals that will likely occupy their respective managements' attention.
Also, the weak advertising market has hammered the shares of all media companies, which means that station owners would be selling at the bottom of the market and potential buyers would be wary of paying too much of a premium.
A debt-funded buying spree of television stations runs the risk of hurting credit ratings for major media companies, rating agency Standard & Poors warned Wednesday.
Comcast -- the cable systems giant that is in the process of taking over the nation's No. 1 cable operator that is now owned by AT&T Corp. -- is seen as having the most financial flexibility to enter the broadcast market.
With a small stable of cable networks such as Golf Channel, Outdoor Life and local cable sports channels, Comcast is also seen as the most expansion-minded. But others believe that the company has enough on its plate.
"We've seen with the AT&T-Comcast merger that they will have a powerful presence in local advertising in all the key markets," Could that be supported by the acquisition of a broadcast network? Sure, anything's possible. But they're not going to do that before the AT&T deal closes."
That deal is expected to close by the end of the year. Comcast declined to comment.
BROADCAST SHARES SKYROCKET
The world's largest media company, AOL Time Warner Inc. , could find itself in the market for television stations, giving it yet another channel in addition to cable, publishing, music and films, to distribute its vast library.
On the other side of the coin, broadcast station owners like Tribune Co., saw the value of their properties rise significantly.
Tribune shares were up nearly 6 percent on Wednesday. Shares of Paxson Communications Corp. rose 8.7 percent, Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. rose 94 percent, and Emmis Communications Corp. jumped 5.6 percent.
Besides the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, Tribune Co. owns 23 television stations and 25 percent of the WB network, which is controlled by AOL Time Warner.
"The Tribune's television stations are the biggest affiliate owner for the WB, so the speculation is rampant that AOL Time Warner would buy those assets," said Deutsche Banc Alex. Brown analyst Peter Appert. "And it would be a pretty small part of AOL's empire, so the speculation isn't out of whack."
Neither AOL Time Warner nor Tribune executives returned phone calls requesting comment.
Appert also noted that as a broadcast station owner, Tribune could be a buyer of television stations. Gannett Co. Inc., which owns USA Today, 96 other daily newspapers and 22 TV stations, is also viewed as a possible buyer.
Gannett declined to comment, but Chief Executive Douglas McCorkindale has held open the possibility of further acquisitions of TV stations if the price were right and the broadcast limits were lifted.
Viacom, one of the companies that originally challenged the rules in court, last week announced it would buy a second Los Angeles station from Young Broadcasting for $650 million and is believed to be on the hunt for more stations. But like Gannett, the deals would depend on price. Viacom declined to comment.
News Corp. also declined to comment, but Chief Executive Murdoch has said that the company was an unlikely buyer as it already has stations in 16 of the 20 largest U.S. markets.
Murdoch has held open the possibility, however, of swapping stations to gain duopolies, or two stations in the same market, which often offers opportunities to cut costs.
CABLE COS UNLIKELY BUYERS
Other cable operators like Charter Communications Inc. and Cox Communications are unlikely buyers, Rohan said. Charter has spent billions on acquisitions in the last two years and is believed to have little flexibility on its balance sheet.
Charter was not immediately available for comment.
Cox spokeswoman Laura Oberhelman said the company supported the rollback of the cable-broadcast cross ownership rule, but said the company was not currently actively pursuing any deals.
"Theoretically, allowing cable companies to own broadcast channels in the same market as their cable systems creates opportunities for higher quality content like local sports channels and Internet content," she said.
Analysts, however, view Cox as a more cautious company.
"Cox is one of the most conservative companies in the cable industry," Rohan said. "And it's paid off for them in this tumultuous environment. It's performing better than most of the sector right now. But we view them as focusing on their own businesses of video-on-demand and telephony."
Another possibility created by the relaxed rules is programming companies like Viacom or Walt Disney Co. jumping into the cable systems business. Disney executives were not immediately available to comment.
"That doesn't seem likely to me," Rohan said. "Investors are focusing more and more on cash flow. A capital-intensive business like the cable industry doesn't strike me as an attractive one for content companies, particularly as the growth rates of cable companies are under siege from satellite companies."