Some Leaders Never Learn - Tribune's Big, Dumb Bet
Tribune Corporation finally emerged from a 4 year bankruptcy on the last day of 2012. Before the ink hardly dried on the documents, leadership has decided to triple company debt to double up the number of TV stations. Oh my, some people just never learn.
The media industry is now over a decade into a significant shift. Since the 1990s internet access has changed expectations for how fast, easily and flexibly we acquire entertainment and news. The result has been a dramatic decline in printed magazine and newspaper reading, while on-line reading has skyrocketed. Simultaneously, we're now seeing that on-line streaming is making a change in how people acquire what they listen to (formerly radio based) and watch (formerly television-based.)
Unfortunately, Tribune - like most media industry companies - consistently missed these shifts and underestimated both the speed of the shift and its impact. And leadership still seems unable to understand future scenarios that will be far different from today.
In 2000 newspaper people thought they had "moats" around their markets. The big newspaper in most towns controlled the market for classified ads for things like job postings and used car sales. Classified ads represented about a third of newspaper revenues, and 40% of profits. Simultaneously display advertising for newspapers was considered a cash cow. Every theatre would advertise their movies, every car dealer their cars and every realtor their home listings. Tribune leadership felt like this was "untouchable" profitability for the LA Times and Chicago Tribune that had no competition and unending revenue growth.
So in 2000 Tribune spent $8B to buy Times-Mirror, owner of the Los Angeles Times. Unfortunately, this huge investment (75% over market price at the time, by the way) was made just as people were preparing to shift away from newspapers. Craigslist, eBay and other user sites killed the market for classified ads. Simultaneously movie companies, auto companies and realtors all realized they could reach more people, with more information, cheaper on-line than by paying for newspaper ads.
These web sites all existed before the acquisition, but Tribune leadership ignored the trend. As one company executive said to me "CraigsList!! You think that's competition for a newspaper? Craigslist is for hookers! Nobody would ever put a job listing on Craigslist." Like his compadres running newspapers nationwide, the new competitors and trends toward on-line were dismissed with simplistic statements and broad generalizations that things would never change.
The floor fell out from under advertising revenues in newspapers in the 2000s. There was no way Times-Mirror would ever be worth a fraction of what Tribune paid. Debt used to help pay for the acquisition limited the options for Tribune as cost cutting gutted the organization.
Then, in 2007 Sam Zell bailed out management by putting together a leveraged buyout to acquire Tribune company. Saying that he read 3 newspapers every day, he believed people would never stop reading newspapers. Like a lot of leaders, Mr. Zell had more money than understanding of trends and shifting markets. He added a few billion dollars more debt to Tribune. By the end of 2008 Tribune was unable to meet its debt obligations, and filed for bankruptcy.
Now, new leadership has control of Tribune. They are splitting the company in two, seperating the print and broadcast businesses. The hope is to sell the newspapers, for which they believe there are 40 potential buyers. Even though profits continued falling, from $156M to $89M, in just the last year. Why anyone would buy newspaper companies, which are clearly buggy whip manufacturers, is wholly unclear. But hope springs eternal!
The new stand-alone Tribune Broadcasting company has decided to go all-in on a deal to borrow $2.7B and buy 19 additional local television stations raising total under their control to 42.
Let's see, what's the market trend in entertainment and news? Where once we were limited to local radio and television stations for most content, now we can acquire almost anything we want - from music to TV, movies, documentaries or news - via the internet. Rather than being subjected to what some programming executive decides to give us, we can select what we want, when we want it, and simply stream it to our laptop, tablet, smartphone, or even our large-screen TV.
A long time ago content was controlled by distribution. There was no reason to create news stories or radio programs or video unless you had access to distribution. Obviously, that made distribution - owning newspapers, radio and TV stations - valuable.
But today distribution is free, and everywhere. Almost every American has access to all the news and entertainment they want from the internet. Either free, or for bite-size prices that aren't too high. Today the value is in the content, not distribution.
In the last 2 years the number of homes without a classical TV connection (the cable) has doubled. Sure, it's only 5% of homes now. But the trend is pretty clear. Even homes that have cable are increasingly not watching it as they turn to more and more streaming video. Instead of watching a 30 minute program once per week, people are starting to watch 8 or 10 half hour episodes back to back. And when they want to watch those episodes, where they want to watch them.
While it might be easy for Tribune to ignore Hulu, Netflix and Amazon, the trend is very clear. The need for broadcast stations like NBC or WGN or Food Network to create content is declining as we access content more directly, from more sources. And the need to have content delivered to our home by a local affiliate station is becoming, well, an anachronism.
Yet, Tribune's new TV-oriented leadership is doubling down on its bet for local TV's future. Ignoring all the trends, they are borrowing more money to buy more assets that show all signs of becoming about as valuable whaling ships. It's a big, dumb bet. Similar to overpaying for Times-Mirror. Some leaders just seem destined to never learn.