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Liberty to Get Back in the Cable Game With 25% Stake in Charter

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Charter Communications (CHTR), in early Tuesday trading, was at $99.03, up 99 cents, or 1.01%. It popped Monday, hitting a new 52-week high of $99.50 off an open of $89.17, after reports the company is nearing a deal to sell a 25% stake to John Malone's Liberty Media (LMCA) for roughly $2.5 billion.

"A deal would mark Mr. Malone's first acquisition of a U.S. cable system since selling Tele-Communications Inc. to AT&T (T) in 1999. Charter is the eighth biggest pay-TV provider, with about four million subscribers," writes the Wall Street Journal. "Under the management of Mr. Malone, TCI became the biggest U.S. cable operator."

In other words, Malone has the chops to see this through, or at least the track record. The thing is that when Malone brought TCI up the cable rankings, it was 1999. Maybe this is why enthusiasm seems to be lacking for Liberty. The company's share price opened at $109.99 and was trading as low as $108.46 by midday Monday. Liberty recovered somewhat, and it still boasts a one-year target estimate of $130.63, which is impressive given that it is trading at less than 10 times its earnings.

Moreover, the last 14 years have brought a ton of changes in the way people watch television and what they are willing to pay for service. Today, Netflix (NFLX) has more than 27 million subscribers to its streaming service (as of Dec. 31 per Yahoo! Finance) -- that is more than six times the number of subscribers Charter currently has.

Now, granted, there are lots of people who have both Netflix subscriptions and cable service, but it points to a trend -- people are willing to pay for what they want, but no more.

The market is increasingly turning toward a "post-bundle TV world," as a Wall Street Journal article put it. Recently, Cablevision (CVC) filed a lawsuit against Viacom (VIAB) "accusing it of antitrust violations for forcing it to carry and pay for more than a dozen 'lesser-watched' channels in order to offer the popular ones like Nickelodeon and MTV. Viacom disputes the allegation," the article says. But, those lesser-watched channels play a specific role in keeping costs down.

"A la carte -- maybe a little counterintuitively -- raises prices and reduces choice because it increases the costs," said Mike Fricklas, general counsel at Viacom, explaining that "now you have to worry about whether they are subscribing and watching." He said a lot of money would be siphoned out of programming investment and into marketing dollars because there wouldn't be assured distribution.

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