As earnings season rolls in, Wall Street eagerly awaits the next steps in
Stirred by the notion that all media consolidation is not created equal, Chairman Sumner Redstone prompted roars of approval last month by saying he would consider splitting up the company. But the stock settled back down soon afterward, leaving Viacom holders in familiar territory: looking for a move that will finally set the stock moving ahead again.
On Tuesday, the company is due to release its latest quarterly numbers. Wall Street expects Viacom to post a per-share profit of 31 cents on revenue of $5.42 billion, showing year-over-year declines in both categories.
As is so often the case, though, Viacom's earnings will also offer a view into the latest debate in the media industry -- in this case, whether the sector's conglomerates really need scale as much as they have claimed.
After a decade of leaders extolling the effectiveness of media consolidation, so-called asset bundling seems to have fallen out of favor. Analysts generally applauded Viacom's plan to look at a split-up, and some went so far as to say the company's move could point to a new trend.
Merrill Lynch's Jessica Reif-Cohen noted in her March 17 report that "Viacom's announcement appears to confirm a new (and potentially lasting) trend in the media section of deconsolidation." Merrill, a recent Viacom underwriter, rates the stock buy.
Redstone says the forward-looking play is to split the company into a growth-oriented unit -- comprising Paramount and the cable assets including MTV and Nickelodeon -- and a value-based traditional media company, which would be made up of CBS plus the radio and outdoor units.
With Viacom's different asset profiles under one umbrella, growth investors have been discouraged by the presence of slow-growth businesses, while value investors have been turned off by higher-risk, high-growth businesses. In short, no one is terribly happy with the current setup.
Redstone's feeling that investors will buy the piece that suits their investment profile and bid up the separate stock prices is hardly a novel one in the media world. Fellow mogul Rupert Murdoch tried this in 1999 by spinning off
, splitting its growth businesses from all the newspapers and books within News Corp. Murdoch announced earlier this year he would buy out public shareholders of Fox to fold it back into News Corp.
A split would also essentially tear up the CBS-Viacom merger in 2000, in case no one had noticed. Bear Stearns' Victor Miller and Raymond Katz, in their March report, say the move "amounts to a tacit admission that the benefits of the CBS merger have not been realized, and, indeed, raises issues in general regarding all media consolidation." They rate the stock outperform, and Bear has done underwriting for Viacom.
That said, there are other reasons to back the split. For one thing, there are hard-hitting execs -- think Tom Freston and Les Moonves -- who have wanted their own show to run. And for another, the idea that by splitting the companies Viacom will lose synergies is a red herring.
CBS, for example, has always had to negotiate TV rights for a Paramount movie, and it would still have to under any new model. Paramount has to make its numbers like everyone else. The pertinent question for investors is whether the risk-averse studio will change its profile under incoming president Gail Berman -- fresh from heading up Fox Broadcasting -- and leave shareholders with a more volatile component on that side of the fence.
Redstone will also want to pursue synergies in new technologies and gaming en route to bolster cable's highly targeted but low ratings. A small hint at what the future might hold for the Freston-run side of the equation lies in a new deal between MTV and
, which this week announced that it will showcase its latest Xbox console on MTV in mid-May. The deal is likely to go far beyond those cable broadcasts (look for MTV and other Viacom advertising in Xbox games, for example).
In any case, woe to media buyers who finally thought they had it all figured out. Everyone else, including Sumner, should be just fine.