The Internet has caused a seismic shift in how content is viewed. The younger generation no longer sees any difference between film, TV, and Internet. Content is content.
There are other factors at play, such as the decline of quality content in traditional media, but all of these factors have contributed to an overall erosion in viewership of both film and TV. Ticket sales have been declining in the mid-single digits every year for the past 10 years, except for 2009. Network viewership has also plunged. The only sector that has seen audience growth has been cable television, but now even that may be changing.
What’s the play for investors?
If you insist on traditional media companies, you’d better go with diversified ones. There’s none better right now than Walt Disney (NYSE:DIS). I don’t need to point out the extent to which it’s diversified across all media. Time Warner (NYSE:TWX) is probably the second-best choice.
But what the less obvious plays? Are there any companies that might return more than the 15%-20% annually we expect from the above stocks?
Liberty Media (NASDAQ:LMCA) and Liberty Interactive (NASDAQ:LINTA) are the first that come to mind. Legendary investor and cable cowboy John Malone, along with CEO Greg Maffei, are masters of dealmaking and geniuses at spotting great businesses. They’ve aggregated some of the best brand names in traditional media and interactive e-commerce, and these businesses generate enormous free cash flow each year.
That’s what Mr. Malone is all about — cash flow. With cash flow, he can get as much credit as he wants at low prices, aggressively buy back stock, make acquisitions, and do deals that never result in paying taxes.
I would put Barry Diller’s IAC/Interactive (NASDAQ:IACI) right behind Liberty. Diller is also a digital media and e-commerce maven, is all about cash flow and has an eye for smart deals.
I would also go with DirecTV (NYSE:DTV). It isn’t just that the company is on fire in Latin America, that it generates tons of cash flow, that Warren Buffett just bought in, and that John Malone held a stake at one point. It’s that DirecTV is on the forefront of distribution technology. It offers a lot already, and with Video on Demand becoming increasingly important, I think it will remain a big player.
What do I think of Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX)? I do not see how Netflix can generate enough revenue to pay for all the streaming content it has made deals for, and I think some about-to-be-mentioned competition is going to make things increasingly difficult for the company.
I also don’t like how it keeps switching strategies. Now it’s spending a lot of money on original TV productions or resuscitating older shows. That’s an expensive proposition, and Netflix needs a lot of new subscribers to justify it. But Netflix is a momentum stock. It may go up to $300 again with no justification. Or it may go to zero.
As for Netflix’ competition, I think you have to own both Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) and Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL). Amazon is not only becoming a streaming-content player, but it will unquestionably continue to grow as a go-to source for content consumption. The Kindle is one form of it; the streaming service is another.
I think there’s more to come here, and Amazon has the cash to expand. The same goes for Apple. Apple TV is going to morph at some point and maybe even take a stab at DirecTV in some fashion. The ability to view content on all of these Apple devices is key. Apple doesn’t have to produce content. What it’s doing is facilitating consumption.
These are the major plays. There are probably others out there. Keep an eye out for them.