Media stocks continue to struggle
The third quarter is in the books, and media investors still have nothing to cheer about. None of the industry's titans, ranging from News Corp. ( NWS) and Disney ( DIS) to Viacom ( VIA) and Time Warner ( TWX), has made any great progress since last quarter, when it became apparent that investors were growing restive. Despite big talk about where these companies are headed, media stocks remain mired. Mobile deals abound, satellite is growing in Italy, AOL is coming back with a vengeance, pirates stole my DVDs -- you name it, the media chieftains are retailing it as an excuse for the continued underperformance. Rebellious hedge fund manager Carl Icahn has confronted Time Warner Chairman Richard Parsons with the stock's long flat spell, but Parsons has stuck to his guns, saying Time Warner needs to save for winter. The stock did rise modestly this quarter, as investors gathered to see the Icahn opera play out. Meanwhile, though Bob Iger's ascendance at Disney has driven a truckload of goodwill and bonhomie up to the Magic Kingdom's entrance, the stock continues to struggle, down 10% since July 1. Some media watchers blame the problems playing out in the bigger economy. "I think it's external," says Gabelli Asset Management's Larry Haverty. "Consumer discretionary stocks don't do well in this environment." Haverty says that if oil were at $45 a barrel rather than $65, the story for the big media companies would be different. Still, a bounty of positive catalysts at Disney has had no noticeable impact, and investors are left to wonder if a deal with Pixar ( PIXR) or a sale of radio properties will finally stimulate the stock. Sources say that after an inconclusive first round of bids, talks are heating up again. Meanwhile, a much-ballyhooed Viacom split is on track, though it has been tangled up in last minute legal t-crossing and i-dotting. The market, meanwhile, has reacted with a yawn. Viacom too has been flat for three months, despite its pretty rosy outlook for its new scheme.
And one can hardly blame John Malone for applying a little pressure on News Corp., despite Rupert Murdoch's claim that it has had its "best year ever." The stock has done precious little to satisfy shareholders and has trended downwards. Even beyond the high rollers at the top of the media world, the story remains pretty grim. Tribune ( TRB), having felt the burn of a recent legal action, is at its lowest point in ages. As Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia ( MSO) tries to right its ship, profitability seems a distant dream. The best story in media this quarter may lie in the animation companies. DreamWorks ( DWA), despite this year's repeated earnings misses, rose 6% last quarter. Things should look better soon as the company releases a niche film, Wallace & Gromit, this week. Rival Pixar has slipped a bit because of the DVD-return problem that has hit just about everyone in the business by now. But expect it to recover pending new a new distribution deal. Edgar Bronfman Jr., the oft-time whipping boy of the media world, has managed to bump shares in Warner Music ( WMG) close to 15% since July. As his digital plays emerge, and media stocks stumble, suddenly Edgar is not looking so foolish after all.