Maven: Monopoly of Opinion on DirecTV

A bad experience leads to a worse unsupported conclusion. Plus, Wal-Mart.
Author:
Publish date:

(Editor's note: To access some of these stories, registration or a subscription may be required. Please check the individual links for the site's policy.)

The owner of Remington showcased himself in an advertisement back in the day, claiming in a line which became an instant pop culture reference point that he liked his razor so much, he bought the company.

Now, 25 years later, along comes

Barron's

.

One of their journalists hated a product so much, he wrote an

article

.

Interestingly enough, Mark Veverka begins his anti-

DirecTV

(DTV)

rant by referencing not Victor Kiam, the King of Catch Phrases Past, but Peter Lynch.

He makes a point -- well taken -- that though Lynch was best known for his folksy advice to "invest in what you know," he should have added, "Don't invest in what you know to be a big problem."

And DirecTV's customer service is a big problem, Veverka said in a claim that gave The Business Press Maven pause, though he was still ready to stay with it.

Let me explain.

First, if everyone given the runaround by a large company's customer service department were a journalist willing to exact revenge in print by writing about the annoying encounter, well, there wouldn't be room for anything else in print, not even the thinly sourced trend stories the business media favors so much.

But in this case, I was willing to hear Veverka out.

After all, though DirecTV has been up on the strength of both various

News Corp.

(NWS) - Get Report

takeover whispers and its recently reported third-quarter earnings, color The Business Press Maven skeptical about DirecTV's long-term prospects.

Earnings were better than expected and the number of customers who paid for higher services went up, but overall customers were way down, by 9%.

That never bodes well.

Moreover, DirecTV's product -- an antenna on your roof that might not work in the rain -- is cumbersome at best.

Most challenging of all, cable companies such as

Comcast

(CMCSA) - Get Report

and

Cablevision

(CVC)

are running hard with digital cable (which does not require a dish that goes in the rain), bundling it successfully with voice and Internet.

They are even starting to keep pace with all the bells and whistles (such as

TiVo

(TIVO) - Get Report

-type live-TV recording capabilities) that DirecTV used to lead with.

So despite our suspicions, let's hear Veverka out.

He claims to speak only for himself, which on the surface seems like an appropriate disclosure, but in practice seems to serve as a pass to mention corroborating evidence, such those lower overall subscriber numbers or speaking to the company to see if other customers drop the service when they move homes.

That qualifier -- "my personal experience suggests" -- is apparently a bit of a work saver.

But even there, I'm willing to cut the guy a break. He was busy moving and had to make a million calls to get his dish set up.

Far be it for The Business Press Maven to stand between a man and his television.

But this is where I really wanted to cry aloud.

Veverka notes rightly that one of the few advantages still held by DirecTV is in the area of American pro sports events.

The sports-addicted can still be better served by DirecTV's strong hold.

Opines Veverka: "And therein lies the investment problem. DirecTV won't be able to retain its monopoly forever."

Speaking of corroborating evidence, there is none.

No history of how and when sports coverage changes. No thread of something new happening in sports coverage, some shift in policy or practice. No nothing.

DirecTV probably won't be able to maintain its advantage forever (even The Business Press Maven wanted keep his youth and looks forever), but hey, if DTV can do it for another 10 years, an investor has no business selling the stock now.

The larger point is that The Business Press Maven is completely willing to read about a journalist's bad experience with a company. Such sounding-off can carry with it some truths, and even counterbalance much of the public relations-driven dribble we are forced by modern circumstance and lack of journalistic critical thought to read.

But there has to be corroboration.

A rant about customer service can't turn into a hunch about suddenly disappearing monopolies.

While we're on the subject on customer service, let The Business Press Maven say that although I have received favorable service at

Wal-Mart

(WMT) - Get Report

, I still wouldn't buy the stock at gunpoint.

When it comes to Wal-Mart, a great company, we probably have hit a telltale point in its history.

Where can you find the indicator? As always, in press coverage.

As with Toys 'R Us and Woolworth back in the day, everywhere you look, you read yet another story about another strategy, tweak in focus or brand-new initiative that is going to get store sales growth humming again for Wal-Mart.

Sometimes, as an

article

in

Women's Wear Daily

reports, the strategy is to move "closer to its roots."

This means a shifting more emphasis into core categories like toys and electronics, and emphasizing prices.

Then you have an

Associated Press

story

about a Wal-Mart strategy that seems at cross purposes with this back-to-basics approach: "The upgrading of its fashion is part of the company's larger campaign to expand into better quality, trendier merchandise to revitalize anemic sales and sluggish profit growth."

Over at

Reuters

, we have a Wal-Mart

story

with a lead that talks about price cuts in small appliances like microwaves and coffee makers "aimed at luring shoppers during the vital holiday shopping period."

Here, the business media are serving investors well: Their confusion is a perfect metaphor for Wal-Mart's confusion.

As in the case of Toys 'R Us and Woolworth, Wal-Mart, by dint of its size and the fact that others have caught up and even surpassed its abilities (see:

Target

(TGT) - Get Report

and

Kohl's

(KSS) - Get Report

), has hit a point of diminishing returns.

A journalist with a background on Wall Street, Marek Fuchs has written the County Lines column for The New York Times for the past five years. He also contributes regular breaking news and feature stories to many of the paper's other sections, including Metro, National and Sports. Fuchs was the editor-in-chief of Fertilemind.net, a financial Web site twice named "Best of the Web" by Forbes Magazine. He was also a stockbroker with Shearson Lehman Brothers in Manhattan and a money manager. He is currently writing a chapter for a book coming out in early 2007 on a really embarrassing subject. He lives in a loud house with three children.