Follow Up: CBS, Viacom, A Lawsuit, & Verizon

In a follow up to the earlier coverage on this merger, the drama around CBS and National Amusements (parent company of both CBS and Viacom) took a disastrous turn on Monday. The board at CBS took a harsh tactic in the negotiations by suing National Amusements in a Delaware court to block the potential merger with Viacom.

The suit seeks to dilute the authority that National Amusements has in CBS by reducing their voting stock percentages and other high level business machinations which are involved in certain situations when a company is going into a defensive mode to avoid consolidation.

The lawsuit also involves CBS seeking the protection of the CBS Board of Directors from being altered by National Amusements at any point now or in the future. This is a maneuver intended on preventing Shari Redstone from removing certain board members at CBS who have indicated that they are against the Viacom merger, and having her “stack the deck” with people aligned with her in pushing through the merger.

Furthermore, the suit also seeks protection for CBS so that they essentially do not have to accept a “bad merger” deal. This news on the lawsuit comes from Forbes, CNBC, and USA Today. Redstone, has stated that she had no intention of making changes to the CBS board, and both sides are pointing fingers.

This situation is getting ugly, to say the least, and it is unusual too because National Amusements has a hand in both entities already. The normal circumstances of other mergers or acquisitions are between two sides that have no prior affiliation. The ruling of the court in this situation will provide some insight into the potential path that this merger will take in the months ahead.
The court ruling will also provide a legal precedent for the future for M&A activity of this type. In my earlier feature length piece on this merger, the variables were presented regarding the differences of strategic vision that Ms. Redstone and Les Moonves (who runs CBS) had regarding the future of the company.

The merger makes some degree of sense because the assets of Viacom, particularly the cable television outlets, would provide CBS with more content to control and also a wider footprint in cable TV. The recent industry report that was published yesterday touts that cable television revenues have increased by about 10% nationally would seem to indicate that this potential merger is timely for CBS.

However, in my experience covering M&A activity, I kept returning to the rationale behind why CBS would take the option on Monday to sue National Amusements (which some in the media call “the nuclear option”). The only scenario that made sense to me was that CBS had another deal forthcoming or another potential partner for a deal they were trying to work out in back channels.

The one potentially fit in my mind was Verizon, because it had been rumored before, and I wrote about that possibility in an M&A “roundup” type piece I did on media companies. The synergy between Verizon and CBS makes sense for both parties given the other acquisitions and consolidations surrounding both of those entities.

Verizon is under pressure from AT&T, who is attempting to merge with Time Warner, and the federal government has a lawsuit in place currently to block that merger. Comcast is in the process of a bidding war with Disney over the assets of 21st Century Fox as well.

In fact, some within the financial news media suggested that Verizon may have backed off from making a formal proposal to CBS because of the federal government response to the AT&T deal with Time Warner.

The news broke about three hours ago today that Verizon has had contact with CBS and that there is some renewed interest in a potentially deal. That makes sense given the steps that CBS has taken with the lawsuit here against National Amusements. They may not want to take the Viacom deal if they have a better deal with Verizon.

The rather limited cable presence of CBS (Showtime and a couple of smaller channels) would be enhanced by a partnership with Verizon. The network shows on CBS are tremendous ratings drivers, which along with the NFL and other sports content, makes CBS a desirable commodity for Verizon as they seek to keep up with their competitors in the marketplace.

The Verizon potential involvement could be the “wrench” that gets thrown in the CBS – Viacom negotiations that causes a rift that cannot be repaired. The decision of the court will loom over this merger and will be pivotal to which direction it takes in the months ahead.

In the meantime, if the AT&T lawsuit with the government gets resolved that will determine the strategic direction that Comcast will take in the bidding war with Disney over Fox and will provide guidance to Verizon as they determine their commitment to acquire CBS. It is similar to a giant game of dominoes, except that billions of dollars are at stake as well as the careers of many seasoned industry executives, and the fate of consumer choice hangs in the balance.

Follow Up: AT&T Plans To Buy Time Warner Hit Snag

In a follow up to a recent piece on this potential merger, the plans for AT&T to obtain Time Warner for $85 billion hit a snag on Wednesday. The government regulators involved have interceded and have stated that AT&T has to sell either CNN and other related network holdings within Turner Broadcasting , or sell their ownership stake in DirecTV in order for the deal to move forward.

This consolidation of ownership or control of so much content is the issue at hand for the federal regulators. The most honest assessment of this merger is that the control of content was always going to be an issue with this proposal.

The fact remains that AT&T would have too much control over both sides of the content pipeline in their proposed arrangement, that it can have drastic impact on price controls for the consumer.

The average viewer is now streaming more content than ever before, and AT&T has a master strategic plan to become a larger player in the streaming content side of the business. Their purchase of DirecTV started that process with the introduction of a streaming service for customers of that satellite service which has garnered fairly good reviews.

The more troubling aspect of the news today was the response by AT&T who have doubled down on their stance that they will fight any changes to the deal. They are bullishly against selling any assets and are essentially going to attempt to “push through” one of the largest telecommunications mergers in American history.

The pursuit of Time Warner by AT&T has been fraught with problems from the outset. In my view, I can understand why both sides want to get something done in the way of consolidation: Time Warner is struggling to keep their vast media empire relevant in a rapidly changing landscape where print media is dying, and television is becoming increasingly competitive. AT&T would gain a tremendous amount of content for their own service via DirecTV and would be able to charge other industry players for their content.

The major issue is that the merger would make AT&T too gigantic and put their hands into “too many pots” which is an anti-trust conflict in the purest form. AT&T could charge more for cellular phone service or for the apps for the content on the smart phones. AT&T could wield enormous influence over the carriage agreements of all the current Time Warner broadcasting mediums.

The divestiture of one of these assets as identified by the federal regulators is absolutely necessary when you consider the size of Time Warner and the diversification of AT&T. The “mega mergers” of recent years have all had some sort of pothole on the way to fruition.

However, in this case, we are left to consider this question: what if AT&T sells Turner Broadcasting and the deal still does not gain approval? What if the deal never is approved by the regulators?

I am not sure at this point who would be in position to purchase Turner Broadcasting while also maintaining approval from the regulators involved. The deal may never gain approval, that is a realistic possible outcome at this point. The most likely outcome would be that Time Warner is sold off in pieces to different competitors in each of the media spaces they operate within.

This is a developing situation and where it leads could have a massive impact on the consumer in the coming months. The growth of AT&T is alarming and the argument can be made that they should be stopped, it remains to be seen if that will take place.

“Straight Talk” T-Mobile & Sprint Merger Talks Intensify

The reports out of Wall Street on Tuesday were that two wireless telecommunications giants, T-Mobile and Sprint, were in negotiations on a potential merger. The reporting from CNBC has been great on this topic, and according to that trusted news source, there has been no exchange ratio determined to this point.

That is an indication that talks are still in an early stage but CNBC also added that the negotiations on the term sheet had begun. The period of term sheet negotiations can lag for a while or move relatively quickly depending on the parties involved in the potential merger. I have covered mergers where the meetings to figure out the parameters of the term sheet could get contentious, obviously much of that is centered around the valuation of given assets in the deal.

These two particular companies have discussed joining forces at least a few times in the past several years. The difference between those prior attempts and this potential merger opportunity is that the current proposal is expected to be an all stock transaction. The prior attempts at merging the two companies involved cash which brings in other variables around valuations of certain other operational components.

The main reason that these two mobile phone service providers are seeking to merge is one of the usual reasons: cost synergy. That rationale has come up often in my prior writing on M&A activity, and this deal stands to provide billions of dollars of cost savings due to the synergies involved in these businesses.

T-Mobile and their parent company, Deutsche Telecom, would become the lead party in the combined company. This translates to the average person to mean that if the two companies did link up – the combined company would be known as T-Mobile. It is too early to know, and it is unclear whether it will change, that they will keep the two names in the marketplace operating essentially as different brands with the same parent owner.

Sprint and their parent company, Softbank, expressed interest to work a deal with T-Mobile again earlier this year. The sources around the negotiations state that the understanding is that the CEO of T-Mobile, John Legere, would lead the combined company.

However, it is also being reported that the top guy at Softbank, Masayoshi Sun, wants a position of significant input into the daily operations of the potential combined entity. This scenario, in my experience covering mergers, always presents a whole other set of complications to the deal being completed.

In addition, it should be noted that the personnel involved in researching this type of transaction at T-Mobile has not begun their review of the balance sheet at Sprint. This review could (and very often does) change the terms of the structure of the deal. It also could become a factor in T-Mobile backing out of the process if it is determined that the current financial picture at Sprint is not advantageous for M&A activity.

Furthermore, the other variable which cannot be underscored is the anti-trust situation. The regulatory aspect from the federal government entities involved in a merger of this magnitude can frequently create several hurdles that could sidetrack a potential deal to the point that it never materializes.

In this case, we are dealing with a significant alignment of the third largest and fourth largest mobile telecommunication companies in the United States. The scrutiny from the federal anti-trust regulatory authorities is going to be significant. That level of scrutiny usually causes one side of the potential merger to disband the process. The possibility that T-Mobile could bow to the pressure exerted by federal regulators and pull the plug on this deal is one potential outcome of this situation.

The motivating factor for both T-Mobile and Sprint is a common one: remain competitive with the top two players in the industry, Verizon and AT&T. Those two behemoths keep getting larger and more diversified in their holdings with Verizon recently acquiring Yahoo and AT&T obtaining more media companies to go along with their blockbuster merger with DirecTV.

The pricing, network coverage, and service options (AT&T bundles services with DirecTV packages, Verizon bundles cell phone plans with FIOS TV packages) makes for competitive disadvantages for T-Mobile and Sprint. It is my belief that if T-Mobile and Sprint joined forces that the branding message would be crafted around their focus on mobile devices and the fact that they are not involved in other businesses in media.

It is very early in the process for this potential merger, anything could break one way or another with regard to the probability of it being carried to fruition. The fact remains that beyond all the “straight talk” the companies are engaging in at this point with the term sheet, is that this merger has several boundaries to overcome.

The stock valuations on the term sheet, the fact that both holding companies do not totally own all of the companies they are trying to consolidate, the role of John Legere versus Mr. Sun and his “seat at the table” demands, the balance sheet health of Sprint, and the anti-trust pressures; are all factors that could derail this deal off the tracks at any point.

The average consumer should keep tabs on this merger because it could further limit the competition and the competitive balance in the cell phone marketplace. This could lead to unfair or burdensome cost increases to the consumer and a lack of choice in their carrier. It effects an area that hits close to home to a great majority of the American public: their cell phone.

In the end analysis, it is going to come down to the same set of factors that most M&A activity revolves around: is the cost savings from the synergies obtained from consolidation worth the effort, headache, and manpower hours needed to complete the merger. The next few months will provide many of those answers as T-Mobile and Sprint move forward in this long process that merits the attention of the consumer.

Mergers & Acquisitions Roundup

The mergers and acquisitions (M&A) activity in this quarter was slow compared to the two most recent quarters in the financial world. The total amount of the deals was reportedly higher in dollar volume than the prior quarter, but the overall M&A picture is overshadowed by the unknown impact of new antitrust policies coming from Washington.

Those policies remain unrevealed to the public by the White House, and has placed most of the potential M&A activity on hold until further details emerge. However, amid all those changes some pending deals made progress and others fell apart. The past few months were still busy when it came to consolidations and other types of acquisitions.

Amazon Enters The Grocery Aisle

Amazon made a bold move into the retail grocery channel by acquiring Whole Foods in an all cash deal in June. The deal will give Amazon a foothold into an industry they have been trying to tap into for a long time without having to spend major capital on leasing or building store locations, training management and staff, as well as developing a distribution network specifically for those stores.

The addition of Whole Foods is going to make Amazon an even greater threat to the other players in the fresh grocery business segment. Amazon plans on keeping Whole Foods operational strategies mostly intact with retaining their business headquarters in Austin and keeping the brick and mortar store experience largely the same.

Walgreens Proposed Merger With Rite Aid Shelved

In the opposite direction, the M&A area was dealt a blow when Walgreens and Rite Aid announced that their long-pursued foray into merging together was being abandoned completely.

This proposed marriage of two of the largest retail pharmacy chains in the U.S. was riddled with issues from the outset. The regulatory boards involved have consistently been concerned with the fact that Walgreens and Rite Aid both had to divest a certain number of stores to meet antitrust requirements. This was further complicated because the industry contains a lack of suitable buyers for those locations.

Walgreens/ Rite Aid identified Fred’s, a largely Southeastern U.S. based chain of both pharmacies and discount type dollar stores, as the partner to absorb the locations that they both would have to sell off in order to meet approval on the merger. The regulators were not sure that Fred’s could double in size basically overnight and survive, especially expanding into the Northeast and other areas where they had no previous presence.

The sheer potential size of a combined Walgreens and Rite Aid ultimately doomed this proposed M&A transaction. Walgreens now has to determine another consolidation strategy in order to compete with CVS Caremark. Rite Aid, while pretty healthy overall with their business, has to be concerned about the tough competition from CVS and Walgreens in the Northeast. They also have to be concerned that another company is going to try to obtain them and absorb them in the short term.

The Big Get Bigger

In perhaps the most under the radar move of the year, AT&T is poised to become even bigger than they are currently with a proposed $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner. This is not just the cable television unit of Time Warner, this is the entire company.

This merger is expected, according to analysts close to the deal, to close and meet all final approval metrics within the next 60 days. This is a controversial merger in the eyes of many in the general public who have justifiable concerns about a multimedia conglomerate with that much influence.

AT&T and DirecTV are the same company, and they will now have control over broadcast channels such as TBS, TNT, CNN, and HLN. This represents a monopoly which can exert pressure upon advertisers and control the message in the media in a way that could be very dangerous.

Some consumers will feel that this is a conflict of interest with AT&T controlling a major satellite television platform as well as a full stable of broadcast channels.

New Rules Coming Soon

The White House will announce some sort of new rules for M&A activity that could make it potentially easier to consummate some of these mega deals. The Dow – DuPont merger looks like it is going to meet regulatory approval regardless of these future changes to the antitrust regulatory requirements.

The rules could allow for less oversight of potential monopolistic deals and could lead to a road where all the consumer is left with are very small “mom & pop” type stores or a store owned by some giant conglomerate with nothing in between.

The Dow-DuPont merger would be one of the largest in history and would be a very complex deal that would eventually create a corporate structure with separate divisions running as autonomous companies based on their shared specialty.

The analysts expect that the Dow-DuPont approval coupled with the regulatory changes could create conditions where M&A activity will ramp up significantly.

The “Q” Gobbles Up HSN

Liberty Interactive/QVC announced on Thursday that they have purchased the remaining stake in HSN (Home Shopping Network) to complete the acquisition of the network. QVC, or “the Q” as it is known in shopping circles, now has control of their top competitor, HSN, and the company is touting the cost savings from the shared core synergies for both networks.

It stands to reason that the systems for ordering and shipping will be upgraded to a unified platform. The knock on HSN is that the ordering process could be more cumbersome and the return process more complicated than that of the processes used by QVC. An improvement to any of those processes at HSN would be a real win for the consumer. This deal is also an indication of how robust the online competition from Amazon and other sites have been to the sales for twenty-four-hour home shopping networks.

Those networks, QVC and HSN respectively, were the advent of online shopping. They provided the first convenience factor of shopping from home, before the genesis of eBay, Amazon, and Craig’s List. Some feel that this merger could be seen as a monopoly, but the reality is that it is a necessary move for the survival of home shopping networks amid intense marketplace competition.

Berkshire Bets Big On Electricity

Berkshire Hathaway and their high-profile owner, Warren Buffet, announced on Friday that they have purchased Oncor, a Texas based power grid leader, for $9 billion in cash.

The acquisition is one of the largest that Berkshire Hathaway has ever undertaken. They are intrigued by the steady demand for electricity and the continued importance of electricity infrastructure in the future.

This move also pulls Oncor out of bankruptcy and into a stable of other companies and brands owned by Berkshire which could provide opportunities for strategic partnerships in energy delivery in the future.

Europe Cracks Down

The news on Thursday that the E.U. has reviewed the M&A activity of certain major players and decided to take punitive steps came as a surprise to some, and as no surprise to others within the business world.

The E.U. is investigating whether GE mislead their regulatory compliance process when the consumer products giant purchased a wind farming operation. The line of defense for GE, according to their spokespeople, is that the company did nothing to intentionally misguide the process. The E.U. law is written in a way that GE should they be found guilty of any wrongdoing would have to pay a fine in excess of one billion dollars.

The E.U. is also investigating Merck (the German company not the American pharmaceutical titan) for a similar matter in a completed merger where the valuations might have been altered to mislead the regulatory powers involved. They also face a hefty fine and the potential for an increased level of scrutiny whenever they decide to consolidate in the future.

The E.U. is also investigating electronics giant, Canon, for some alleged deceptive practices during their purchase of Toshiba’s medical imaging business unit. It would not reverse the acquisition, but it would be a significant fine if guilt is established. The reputation and corporate image of Canon could also take a hit in this situation as well.

The M&A activity has been largely put on hold in recent months. However, some of the largest merger activity could become reality in the next few months. These transactions will have an undeniable impact on the average consumer and will have influence over entire industry segments moving forward. It is important to understand how they can impact you and your family from the way it can impact costs of goods and services. The future will bring more of the same, so stay prepared.

Busy Signal: AT&T and Time Warner Proposed Merger

The news today of a potential merger between two giants in the media industry: AT&T and Time Warner brought with it both a wave of enthusiasm and skepticism in the financial markets and the multimedia/telecommunications industry. The enthusiasm was demonstrated on Wall Street, where Time Warner stock trading surged, with their stock price up around 13% at one point in today’s activity.

The skepticism comes on the part of some consumer groups who are concerned about what this merger might mean for costs of internet access, cellular phone and data plans, and satellite television services (AT&T merged with Direct TV previously). There is also some legitimate cause for regulators to reject this deal, so there is some caution in the industry that this merger may eventually come apart.

The proposed deal includes Time Warner’s film division and cable television division which includes channels such as TBS, TNT, CNN, as well as the crown jewel of premium cable networks, HBO. The deal is valued, according to sources, at $300 billion. It would be the largest merger in the media industry since Comcast completed the acquisition of NBC/Universal in 2011.

This trend would continue what I have deemed in other mergers as the “big getting bigger” scenario. Time Warner is a huge company with many different divisions and huge market presence in media of all forms. AT&T has a market cap of $233 billion and provides cellular phone, internet, telecommunications, and satellite television services to millions of consumers. The combined entity would be a goliath capable of competing with Comcast/Universal, which I maintain is one of the goals of this move today.

The trend of the average consumer looking to cut out their cable television service, or “cord cutting” as it is known, is something I have written about in the past, and it is an increasing trend. This trend is damaging the cable television providers and the cable networks from making revenue gains. This has particularly impacted Time Warner’s cable services division, and made this potential merger a way to partner with a larger company to expand their reach.

The trend toward streaming content is also a driving factor in this proposed merger, as AT&T has been actively pursuing the development of their own streaming content service which would be offered via the Direct TV platform. The combination with Time Warner would provide AT&T with more advantageous content streaming negotiations because they would be better positioned to control the content from TBS, TNT, CNN, and most importantly, HBO.

HBO has top rated content that is sought after by competing streaming services and cable and telco providers. This would put AT&T in the proverbial driver’s seat of those negotiations, but is the same reason why regulatory boards will have issues with this deal.

The Wall Street Journal reported that regulators have some regrets over the Comcast merger with NBC/Universal which they do not want to have repeated by this potential media industry transaction. The Time Warner properties in the cable network division also have exclusive rights (or partial exclusive rights) to sports content such as the NCAA Tournament in college basketball, NBA basketball games both regular season and playoffs, and Major League baseball both regular season and playoff games. This made the deal more attractive for AT&T because of the demand for live sports programming, but it will also make the regulatory scrutiny that much more heightened because that content is meant to be seen by everyone and not meant to be restricted to only certain providers.

This proposed merger, should it gain approval, would give AT&T a huge advantage in providing streaming content for their cellular phones and their new service with Direct TV customers. It would provide Time Warner with more outlets for their content and more consumers in parts of the country which they could not reach with their traditional cable television services. It would offset the loss of cable television consumers through the streaming rights agreements for their content that they will gain through millions of AT&T customers.

However, in the end, this media giant would have more control over more content and that should give both the industry and the consumer cause for concern. This merger should be stopped because it will provide too much control to one corporation, we saw what happened with Comcast and NBC, we cannot afford to let that happen again.

(background information and stats courtesy of CNBC, The Wall Street Journal, and CBS News)