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: CBS Merger With Viacom Gets Contentious

The back and forth nature of the proposed CBS merger with Viacom has taken a turn that is very contentious. The discord centers around Shari Redstone, who controls National Amusements which owns Viacom, and Les Moonves the current top guy at CBS.

Redstone and Moonves had initially discussed, according to CNBC that Moonves would run the combined new entity for a period of two years. The reports widely distributed point to the source of the contention being control over the top management team selections. Moonves wants the authority to assemble his own team of people to run the newly combined company.

In addition, Moonves wants his longtime colleague, Joe Ianniello , to be his second-in-command at the combined venture. However, Redstone wants Bob Bakish (the current Viacom CEO) as the second-in-command to Moonves at the newly merged CBS-Viacom.

This comes down to relationships, which frequently is the lowest common denominator in these situations but also the most important one. Shari Redstone holds a great deal of authority here in this situation and she obviously feels strongly that Bakish deserves a “seat at the table” in the new entity.

The view and position of Les Moonves is also understandable, he and Bakish do not work together every day. Moonves and Ianniello work together daily at CBS and have a loyalty to each other that would most definitely serve the combined company well.

Furthermore, the rumor mill is swirling with media reports of Shari Redstone being prepared to let Moonves go and create a whole new CBS board. These developments make an already turbulent situation even that much worse. The executives at CBS have thought from the onset of the negotiations that the Viacom offer for CBS is undervalued.

Therefore, in addition to feeling “low balled” on the offer, they also feel like they are under attack by Redstone, and they are getting defensive in their posture of response. These are natural human emotions that are taking place with a mega-merger hanging in the balance.

The sticking point, from a business perspective and a public relations/investor relations perspective is to have an experienced executive at the helm of such a large and complex operation as the proposed entity of CBS-Viacom would represent. The analysts on Wall Street have confidence in Les Moonves in that spot, with Bob Bakish in that position or someone else with less experience, that would not produce a favorable response from Wall Street.

The other scenario at play here behind the scenes is the sentiment that Viacom needs this merger more than CBS does at this point. This notion has degrees of truth because Viacom has the need for a partner for their basic cable networks in order to gain better leverage in negotiations with cable and satellite providers. Viacom also has the Paramount movie studio which is losing money seemingly by the minute.

Conversely, CBS needs to position itself to compete within an ever-changing climate in the television industry. The merger would provide CBS with more content to drive on their CBS All Access streaming platform. It would also provide CBS with more “pull” with advertisers that are looking to gain exposure for their brands across multiple cable networks as well as national broadcast programing.

The faster they realize that they need each other, the faster this deal will come together. They need to solve this acrimony which exists around the selection of key appointments to the management team of the new entity. The two sides should consider some type of compromise because the experienced leadership Moonves could provide to the new combined company is not easily replaced. I would think they could find some type of important role for Bakish to play in the combined new company.

These connections, the loyalty, and the relationships that these key people have with each other could serve to make this merger be one of great success. It can also have the reverse effect and create a massive mess for a merger deal of this type and carry over through the initial years of the new entity. It remains to be seen which direction that this situation will head down in the weeks ahead.

The Battle Over Sky News: Front Lines In The Media Battle Between Comcast and Disney

The financial news had some buzz around the potential for a bidding war between Disney/FOX and Comcast for Sky News/Networks on Tuesday. This activity signals what could be the opening salvo in a protracted battle between the major players in the television/visual media to play out across the next several months.

In this case, the asset is Sky News/Networks which has a viewership reach in Europe that is valuable for media companies seeking to expand their capacity and content distribution. In the current situation, FOX owns part of Sky and presented a bid recently to purchase the remaining stake it did not own.

Comcast jumped into the mix on Tuesday with an offer to purchase a controlling interest in Sky which represents a 16% higher valuation than the offer made by FOX. This situation is further complicated by the pending merger of Disney and FOX which essentially puts Disney into the driver’s seat on this deal because Disney would ultimately own Sky upon completion of the merger.

This means that Disney would have to evaluate the offer made by Comcast and decide whether they will propose a counter proposal for Sky. Many financial and merger experts with knowledge of the situation believe that a counter offer will take place and that Sky Networks will end up selling at a premium after a bidding war between Disney and Comcast.

Furthermore, the sentiment in the industry on Tuesday was that Disney might, in essence, lose the battle for Sky Networks, but “win the war” by securing some type of legal assurances from Comcast regarding the bidding for other FOX assets. Disney wants to avoid having bidding wars with Comcast over several different pieces of the now almost former 21st Century Fox properties.

It remains to be seen whether Disney can wrangle that type of agreement out of Comcast which would be unusual but not unprecedented. The general sentiment about the future of Sky is that they would be best suited with Comcast because it meshes better with their core business.

Many consumers visualize Sky as a news company, especially in America where we may have the channel as part of a cable or satellite TV package. The parent company, Sky PLC, which is what is at stake here in this potential bidding war between Comcast and Disney/FOX is much larger than just a news service.

Sky has a satellite television service, broadband service, on-demand internet streaming services, and telecommunications service offerings in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Austria, Germany, and Italy. This asset would increase the service offering capabilities for Disney with their new streaming application or for Comcast who is in the business of optimizing home entertainment, broadband, and telecommunications services.

Moreover, the much larger battle will revolve around the future of Hulu. The Hulu streaming service is owned partially by ABC/Disney, FOX, and Comcast (NBC). The proposed merger of the Disney and FOX assets would include their respective stakes in Hulu.

In fact, the potential to control streaming content through Hulu was one of the significant factors in the Disney bid for FOX according to a report from CNBC and Comcast could create some trouble in giving up their piece in Hulu in the future.

The total sum of this consolidation activity, amid the backdrop of Disney preparing for launch of their own streaming application service, will affect the consumer. The rights to content and the distribution of content will be the main driver in the way the consumer accesses all types of media. The control of that content into the hands of the few, is going to set the table for conditions where pricing can become prohibitive.

Disney, should the pending merger meet approval, would retain their 30% share in Hulu plus gain the 30% share held by FOX and would be the majority stakeholder in the streaming service which reaches over 30 million subscribers and has revenues from ad sales and subscription fees. It is also a significant asset that Comcast has invested money into as well and they may not be willing to just part ways with their stake. They could put Disney “over the barrel” for that last big piece of the Hulu business unit.

The overall health of Sky as a provider is solid, it is my understanding that the business growth in Italy was stagnant for a long period of time but that it has since rebounded. It remains to be seen if the change in ownership causes any noticeable alterations to the way that the customers in Europe will be serviced. Most merger and acquisition type of scenarios feature the potential suitors touting the benefits they would bring to the table.

This case is no different with Comcast essentially stating that they would improve the services offered currently by Sky and use their technology and service delivery expertise to help provide a better customer experience.

Disney has also made similar overtures in their bid stating how desirable Sky would be for them to reach European audiences in a new way, and that they would fully complete the consolidation of an asset that was held in part by FOX for a long period of time. They would look to build upon that tradition and reputation that FOX has built into the programming and content there, but the management of the other portions of that business are outside the scope of the core business for Disney.

The proposals for Sky News and the parent company, Sky PLC, are almost certainly going to create a bidding war between two media heavyweights: Disney and Comcast. This bid could very well represent the opening round of a war between the two entities for other assets contained both within the FOX/21st Century Fox business and outside of those businesses.

The stakes for the consumer are high because the control of content and distribution will both be up for grabs, and the costs for access to that content will have a definitive impact on the consumer in the future. It remains to be seen which side will ultimately emerge, but what is clear is that either Disney or Comcast will be growing even larger and more influential than they are today.

(Background information courtesy of Fortune, BBC.com, CNBC, Recode)

CBS & Viacom Explore Merger Again

The news on Wednesday that CBS and Viacom were once again exploring a merger opportunity should come as no surprise given that the same person, Shari Redstone, is “running the show” at both corporations because her father, who is the chairman of CBS is very ill.

The potential merger is being driven by a strategy to get ahead of the likely merger of AT&T and Time Warner which would create an enormous media conglomerate. The recent merger that is likely to meet full approval between Disney and FOX is another reason for CBS and Viacom to view each other as a potential “port in the storm” scenario.

The combination of the two entities would combine television/media content creation and broadcasting with the expertise Viacom has in distribution of that content. The ability to have expertise in both areas is becoming a necessity in the mainstream media in order to be able to negotiate profitable distribution agreements.

Furthermore, the synergy of content creation/broadcasting and distribution is becoming crucial for the smaller players in the industry to be able to stay relevant with the competition from Disney/FOX and AT&T – Time Warner (AT&T also owns DirecTV).

This is especially relevant when you consider that AT&T has a market cap of over $200 billion and CBS has a market cap of $23 billion. In the event that AT&T merges with Time Warner that number could be close to $300 billion. The Disney and FOX deal will put that combined corporation at around $250 billion in market cap.
The CBS – Viacom deal might become a necessary move to ensure their own survival in the changing media landscape. The distribution of content is critical, and control of content is also an integral part of the connection between content and profitability. The two companies have several areas of cross-compatibility which is suitable for a merger opportunity.

The merger, if approved, would potentially bring together a more robust stable of networks that are widely available on basic cable packages that would provide leverage for CBS & Viacom when negotiating the carriage fee agreements.

This same principle would apply outside of the U.S. domestic market where a combined entity would be a serious player in the international media / television broadcasting space. My own depth of knowledge is not in the international market but plenty of coverage is out there on that area of this potential deal.

The streaming service that CBS operates called CBS All Access would gain a significant increase in content by merging with Viacom. CBS would also obtain the control of the Viacom owned Paramount movie studio, which should be noted is struggling at this point.

Wall Street is not keen on this deal, according to Forbes they do not see the synergies or the market caps of the combined entity being significant enough to make a difference in the media industry at this point. It also notes, as other major financial news outlets have noted, that CBS is a ripe target for being obtained themselves by Verizon.

The Verizon-CBS rumor has been long running now and it remains to be seen if Verizon wants to take that strategic dive into the network television arm of the industry. The resources of Verizon would be a significant deal within the media industry that would create some serious ripple effect.
However, for now, at least for the next few weeks the focus will remain on CBS and Viacom and if they can determine the parameters of a deal. The combination will not reshape their industry segment but it will have an impact on the way content is controlled and distributed. In that sense, this deal is significant because with the meteoric rise in streaming television programs, content rights are king. CBS would hold the keys to some important properties. Stay tuned.

(some background provided by CNBC, Recode, Forbes, CNN Money.com)

Hain Looking To Sell Protein Business Unit

In a report by CNBC regarding potential mergers, Hain Celestial is looking to sell their protein business unit. This decision is widely regarded as a precursor to the company looking to merge the rest of their business with another entity.

My experience in the food industry is what drew me to this headline coupled with my experience in writing about mergers and acquisitions over the past few years. The consolidation of Hain Foods and Celestial Seasonings (yes the “tea people”) back in the early 2000s was never a very good fit.

The business strategy, or some may argue the lack thereof, by Hain in gobbling up smaller regional organic food product labels only exacerbated the issues stemming from the Celestial merger. The company is now a hodge podge of different brands that all do not co-exist in any sort of cohesive manner.

The sale of the protein business component of the Hain Celestial portfolio will certainly aid the eventual consolidation of the company with a “bigger fish” in the consumer-packaged goods area of the food industry.

The unit for sale is the organic poultry division of the company, which according to statements in the release from the company this area is not congruent with their future strategy. The company was ahead of the trends for organic foods at one point, and after missing the earnings per share estimates set by Wall Street, they are looking to refocus their strategic objectives.

The issue, from my perspective, that Hain is running up against is the demand for pesticide free, GMO free, locally grown/sourced food products. The offerings from Hain are not locally grown, for the most part, and are not fresh either they are generally frozen or shelf stable packaged. It is a more mass produced organic offering and they have to recalibrate their business model to meet shifting consumer demand.

The two big names associated with a potential merger of Hain Celestial are Nestle and Unilever. The implications on the food industry in either case is a scenario of the “big getting bigger” and that might alter the corporate culture at Hain Celestial and prove to have a negative overall effect on their objectives. It would make sense for either of the “big fish” linked to them to consolidate Hain Celestial because it would expand the reach of either Nestle or Unilever further into the organic foods area.

The deal would also provide the larger entity with the access to technologies that Hain Celestial uses to develop future product lines within their respective core business areas. This could provide a potential competitive advantage to a company such as Nestle in their scramble for increased market share in a variety of segments within the consumer-packaged food industry.

The suitors for Hain for their poultry division could be potentially Tyson Foods who could leverage the purchase of the protein division of Hain to bolster their presence in the organic poultry area.

The other part of this situation is that Hain could be in a position where they have to sell off other divisions of the company to be folded into a suitor like Nestle or Unilever in a more seamless manner. The sale of Hain will certainly shift the landscape in the organic food segment of the industry.

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.

Gray Area: The CVS – Aetna Merger

The area of mergers and acquisitions is a key area of focus here on Frank’s Forum and that is what makes the CVS pursuit of purchasing and consolidating Aetna such significant news. The merger would be the largest transaction of 2017 (and we have had some tremendous M&A activity this year) and the largest health insurance merger in American history.

The price tag is astounding: under the terms of the current proposal CVS would obtain Aetna for $66 billion. The implications are of tremendous concern for several entities: health insurers, PBMs (Pharmacy Benefit Managers), other pharmacy retailers, drug companies, and most importantly: the consumer.

The potential combination of the second-largest retail drug chain and one of the largest health insurance providers in the nation is an alarming proposition. It has a feeling of a conflict of interest written all over it. The mainstream media and some other internet based news outlets have done an amazing job covering this emerging story and I encourage you to check out some of those related articles.

The thought process within some of the coverage in those outlets also corresponded with my first thoughts on this merger due to my understanding of the pharmaceutical network coverages through major insurance providers: higher costs for the consumer. This merger, should it clear all of the hurdles, would have tremendous implications on cost.

The consumer should have reservations because essentially this merger will translate to being given the following options: use a CVS location to fill your prescriptions for medications or use CVS mail order service for your prescriptions or end up paying a significant amount of additional money using a different option.

The retail brick and mortar locations of CVS are ubiquitous in certain areas of the country, but there will be some cases geographically where finding a CVS will be cumbersome for some consumers. That is a concern right off the top for the consumer.

The proposal clearly benefits CVS in providing them with a captive audience of consumers also has the ancillary benefit of fixing an issue most retailers are experiencing: reduced foot traffic in their stores.

Many retailers are dealing with reduced foot traffic due to a variety of factors, most notably the convenience of online shopping. This is a good segue to another driving force behind the CVS – Aetna proposed merger which is Amazon.

The online retail giant has been exploring for several weeks now whether to enter the prescription drug marketplace. Amazon has already been granted some preliminary licenses within this area, but I am not an expert on licensing requirements for prescription drug carriage across multiple states, for more information in that area I would suggest researching some of the great articles out there on the topic.

The industry experts insist that the hurdles for entry into the market are high for Amazon to attain. The ethical and procedural questions from a compliance standpoint will most certainly follow this new strategic direction for Amazon.

In addition, the recent legal changes to the policies regarding the dispensing of painkillers and opioid class narcotic drugs would be of particular scrutiny. The ramifications of Amazon carrying those types of products could potentially increase the rate of prescription drug addiction which the government is trying to curtail. Amazon has the two components needed to make this ultimately work: smart people and tons of money.

The convenience of filling your blood pressure medication from your Amazon Echo, your tablet, or your computer is enticing to some, and frightening to others. The “Amazon effect” has already impacted traditional retail channels, especially with their recent entry into the grocery channel with the purchase of Whole Foods, but where does it stop? Should Amazon be able to access prescription drug channels?

However, the case for a conflict of interest could also be made for CVS and Aetna. The merger of health insurance carriers and retail pharmacy chains also has been met with apprehension by some consumers as well. This type of arrangement essentially forces the consumer to use a particular pharmacy if they have insurance coverage from their job which is, in this case, through Aetna.

In fair balance, the other side of the argument would be made by those who have no problem with this merger by pointing out that many current arrangements are made between health insurance carriers, PBMs, and retail pharmacy chains. Some insurance carriers or their PBMs have relationships with Rite Aid, some with Walgreens, and some with CVS which create a “preferred provider” type of situation.

The implications for CVS to actually be the same company as Aetna run far deeper than just a strategic partnership. The potential for an approved bid for CVS to merge with Aetna, would have a domino effect on the retail drug business segment.

The nature of these situations and their impact on an industry segment would invariably begin the speculation of other similar potential mergers. Some examples could be Walgreens with United Health Group, Rite Aid with United or another smaller insurance carrier, and Jewel/Osco with Blue Cross Blue Shield.

The ramifications of a CVS merger with Aetna could change the way health insurance and prescription drug coverage is currently set up, it would have a dramatic impact on prescription formulary coverage, and result in potentially higher costs for the consumer.

The potential for Amazon to enter the prescription drug space is a whole other topic for debate on the potential for a wide range of potential ways that those products could be misallocated or abused.

The merger potential for the second largest retail pharmacy chains with one of the largest health insurance carriers compared to the largest online retailer getting involved in dispensing medications: in the words of the rock legend, Tom Petty, “I don’t know which one is worse”.

“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.

The Next Chapter For Rite Aid or Is it the Last Chapter?

The past few years have featured some major mergers and consolidations across a variety of business segments. It is rare to have a proposed “mega merger” result in a change of course, but in the case of the Walgreens deal to merge with Rite Aid in the retail pharmacy space, that is exactly what transpired.

Walgreens, after repeated attempts to find ways to satisfy the anti-trust regulators, announced that they had disbanded their pursuit of a merger with Rite Aid. The most recent proposed framework of the acquisition had Walgreens and Rite Aid both selling store locations to a Southeastern based retail drug store and discount store chain, Fred’s, done in pieces through a series of transactions.

The proposed framework left regulators and industry analysts concerned that Fred’s could essentially double the size of their company overnight and not sustain any major setbacks.

The proposal also left many in the government regulatory positions feeling unsettled with the potential size of the combined Walgreens/Rite Aid chain and the impact that could have on the consumer. The combined entity would also have tremendous influence with pharmaceutical distributors regarding price and other factors, which made interested parties in the pharmaceutical area very concerned as well.

In the end analysis, Walgreens determined that it was no longer a viable pathway to grow their business, and the proposal with Rite Aid was terminated. The transactions with Fred’s never took place, and the whole deal fell apart very rapidly. The natural next question is: what is the next step for Rite Aid?

Rite Aid has sustained five straight losing quarters and their stock has lost a significant amount of value. They will receive $35 million from Walgreens in a termination fee because the merger was scuttled. Rite Aid also announced it will sell about half of their store locations in their current business footprint. Many of those stores will be sold to Walgreens, which is a strange turn of events because regulators were concerned about Walgreens getting bigger if the merger was approved.

Walgreens stands to gain more store locations in certain markets because the merger was scrapped. Some investment analysts maintain that Rite Aid could turn their business around because they will have streamlined their operations to focus on just half the amount of store locations than they have in their current footprint once the sale of the store locations becomes final.

Conversely, some investment analysts and industry experts are concerned that Rite Aid has serious issues and that the company will still fail, despite the efforts to streamline their business operations. The sale of some of these locations will relieve some of the debt load for Rite Aid, but they still have some significant hurdles to overcome.

The strategic decision by Rite Aid to sell all their locations in certain marketplaces will certainly help the company to remain focused on their core customer bases in the Northeast and along parts of the East Coast. The distribution systems should improve in this streamlined approach, and the distribution network will be far more targeted which will also provide cost savings.

Rite Aid is a staple brand in the retail drug store channel, especially in the Northeast. The future of the company is reliant upon their marketing efforts to reconnect with their core customer base in that geographic market. They will also face external pressures from much larger competitors such as CVS/Caremark, Wal-Mart, and Walgreens.

The opportunity for Rite Aid to merge with another competitor is still a possibility, but the best opportunity for their brand was to merge with Walgreens. It is going to be difficult to find another partner that would not want to just swallow them whole, and the other chains are essentially too small to make an impact on their competitive position in the industry segment.

The decision to streamline their operation will, at the very least, buy them some time to reevaluate their options. The next chapter for Rite Aid appears to be a return to their roots, and to focus on their key strategic markets in the Northeast. It remains to be seen if this change in strategy can be enough to bring the company out of the slump that they have been mired in for several months.

It remains to be seen if this next chapter is the last chapter for yet another iconic American brand in an increasingly competitive retail landscape.

Merger News: Discovery Purchases Scripps Networks

During the past four years here on Frank’s Forum I have focused on mergers in the business world, television ratings/business side of television, and news that impacts the consumer. The news on a Monday morning that Discovery purchased Scripps Networks combines elements from all three of those sub-themes.

First, the merger itself is worth over $11 billion and will combine the networks under the Discovery umbrella (Animal Planet, TLC, Discovery, ID network, and a stake in the OWN Network) with that of the Scripps portfolio (HGTV, Food Network, DIY Network, and Travel Channel). This merger will give the new Discovery Communications ownership of about 20% of the “basic cable” landscape.

This will provide them with leverage when negotiating carriage rights with the cable and satellite providers because they will have much more content and be able to split the channels up into different packages to promote to those providers in order to attract new customers.

Second, the ratings side is a big component of this deal as well. The ratings for basic cable programs are held to a different metric than the national broadcast or premium cable programs, but ratings are still crucial. This is made even more significant by the decreasing viewership levels for cable television programs due to the large number of consumers cancelling their cable service.

The ratings for certain programs that air on Scripps channels are significant, and the combination of the two entities helps their overall combined ratings compared to if they remained two separate units. The reality series, Fixer Upper on HGTV is the #2 rated overall cable program, so that is a huge addition to the Discovery Networks stable when the time comes for contract renewals with the cable and satellite providers.

This ties in nicely to the third component: the impact for the consumer. The combined Discovery/Scripps unit will now be able to offer more content and more value to the cable /satellite providers. They will also be offering their channels in different bundle packages which will benefit the consumer. These factors should lead to lower costs to the consumer for those particular channels.

The additional benefit will most likely be that the content from the new Discovery Networks combined entity will become more readily available in the “On Demand” functions of your cable or satellite provider.

The last component which impacts both the consumer and the business side of the television landscape is that the Discovery executives have discussed the development of their own streaming application. The proposed application would feature a range of content from this newly formed group of popular cable channels.

However, some industry experts remain skeptical of Discovery creating their own streaming service application because it is expensive to develop properly. Many of those same experts also counter that the combined Discovery/Scripps is going to cost more to operate because it is going to be a larger company with more expenses. That is going to require some adjustments by the senior management structure to run efficiently.

In the end, the merger of Discovery with Scripps Networks is an indication of the direction that those types of media companies are going to take in the future. The trend toward consolidation is going to be a necessity in order to compete with NBCUniversal (Comcast), Disney/ABC, and AT&T (DirecTV) especially with AT&T set to purchase Time Warner.

The management at both Discovery and Scripps knew that in order to survive in this new world order in cable television they had to combine forces. The increase in streaming content and consumers trending toward “cutting the cord” with cable services is going to further consolidate the industry in the years ahead. The landscape will change and only the strong will survive.

This merger should have a few benefits to the consumer especially if Discovery could get a streaming application launched. The changes will continue and how it will all turn out in the end is anyone’s guess, we will all just have to stay tuned, literally.