This column was originally published on RealMoney on June 17 at 2 p.m. EDT.
The Internet revolution can't be stopped, and it really is disrupting just about every media and telecom company on the planet. I've spent a lot of time looking at the probable winners, but there are also going to be some ugly losers along the way. Clearly, the Internet's impact isn't and won't be a zero-sum game, but we're already seeing the demise of some heretofore great growth companies that have been positioned incorrectly and now can't afford to shift. There are likely to be some great shorts in these secular declining businesses, although -- as I've cautioned previously --- the huge cash flow from most of these businesses is going to be around for many years, declining as it might be.
Think for a moment about how many of the industry's business models have been completely undermined in the last decade:
: For just about a century, these companies built networks that connected callers via circuits to other people. With the advent of the Internet, voice is becoming just another application -- no different than a Web page. Competition from cable companies and
VoIP (voice-over-Internet protocol) companies -- not to mention wireless, which wasn't spurred by the Internet -- all have come into the business of voice using the Internet as their platform. But it's not just voice that's been disrupted. The Yellow Pages business, which has generated billions upon billions of cash flow each year in this country, is fully in secular decline.
The companies that have long depended on voice as their primary business line are the incumbents like
( BLS), along with long-distance companies like
Of course, this industry is undergoing a major consolidation phase, and the regulatory environment is rather favorable for these companies. Further, these companies have moved aggressively in years past into growth industries like Internet access and wireless. I wouldn't short these companies.
: For more than 300 years -- yes, three centuries -- people got their daily news from newspapers. In the blink of an eye, the entire model of the newspaper has been upended. Certainly, most of us still do read a physical newspaper every day. But with sites like this one being so much better at delivering up-to-the-minute news and with blogs increasingly becoming the go-to place for editorialized and opinionated content, the newspaper news business is fully in secular decline. And of course, it's not just news that's been disrupted here. Classified ads are all moving on line, too.
Despite the fact that these companies will continue to generate plenty of free cash flow and are trying to figure out how to grow their business with recent acquisitions, I think
The New York Times Co.
( DJ) both are in big trouble. I'm likely to buy some very long-term out-of-the-money puts in both if they were to rally with much gusto from here.
From records to eight-tracks to cassettes to CDs, those music content owners sure had it all figured out -- make the end user constantly upgrade. And then the peer-to-peer (P2P) phenomenon hit, and you can forget about any paid upgrade cycle. Music became free for anyone who decides to steal it. And if you already had upgraded to the CD, you just rip it into this upgrade cycle for free -- legally. Of course, there are those like me who are buying music on
iTunes and others who are subscribing to sites like
Music, and those are clearly a huge growth engine for the music industry. But that's a secular growth business inside of an industry that overall is fully in secular decline.
Warner Music Group
( WMG) is already a disaster for shareholders despite being public only for a few short (no pun intended) months. And
in Europe, despite finally getting Coldplay's and Gorillaz's new records out -- they blamed delays for their recent
blow up -- is going to be in big trouble over the next few years. These two companies just have no semblance of an Internet strategy. I'm already building on a small short in Warner Music Group.
: Everyone looks at the satellite radio broadcasters as the terrestrial radio killers. Increasingly, "podcasting" programs (which are sort of the MP3 equivalent of blogging), both full of music and spoken word, are going to catch traction. Regardless, traditional radio is a business that is fully in secular decline. I haven't pulled the trigger, but
sure looks like a great short for the long term, and probably
Clear Channel Communications
: The interstitial commercial has peaked. Likewise, all those advertisers who are seeing the secular decline in radio and television know that they have to move to where the audience is. And they are actively shifting spending to the Internet. No clear shorts here (yet).
: It's next, as video piracy and P2P trading is starting to catch on. And as broadband speeds increase, making file size irrelevant (though that's probably another decade or so away from being mainstream), the concept of "broadcasting" video will fade away -- and that business will be fully in secular decline. As in advertising, no clear shorts here (yet).
Despite all the broken promises and unfulfilled hype of the dot-com bubble, the Internet's impact is very much real and revolutionary. The players in this brave new world have billions upon billions of future earnings ahead of them. With Yahoo! having bought a VoIP company this week, the playing field keeps shifting.
, Yahoo! and Apple are the highest profile apparent winners in this brave new world. But revolutions are always bloody, and there will be upsets and victories and plenty of developments along the way.
As Morpheus says in
: "Welcome the desert of the real."
At time of publication, the firm in which Willard is a partner was net long Apple, Yahoo!, Google, and eBay, and short Warner Music Group, although positions can change at any time and without notice.
Cody Willard is a partner in a buy-side firm and a contributor to TheStreet.com's RealMoney.
He also produces a premium product for TheStreet.com called
The Telecom Connection and is the founder of Teleconomics.com. The firm in which Willard is a partner may, from time to time, have long or short positions in, or buy or sell the securities, or derivatives thereof, of companies mentioned in his columns. At time of publication, the firm in which Willard is a partner had no positions in any of the securities mentioned in this column, although positions can change at any time and without notice. None of the information in this column constitutes, or is intended to constitute, a recommendation by Willard of any particular security or trading strategy or a determination by Willard that any security or trading strategy is suitable for any specific person. Willard appreciates your feedback --
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