Station Rev Status: Spot OK, Retrans Crucial

Analysts say spot TV revenue is bumping along at about the same rate as real GDP plus inflation. That's not terrible, but that's not great either. Fortunately, broadcasters have two other sources of revenue — retrans and digital. Now if they could only find a third.

Let’s talk today about what I know is one of your favorite subjects — revenue. Without the top line, there would be no bottom line and then what kind of business would you have?

Revenue was a big topic at the annual SNL Kagan TV and Radio Finance Summit in New York this past Tuesday, but I want to start our discussion with a blog item that Mark Fratrik, the chief economist at BIA/Kelsey, wrote a few weeks ago.

It was about a new way of looking at spot that strips out the up-down effect of political advertising that makes broadcasting look to casual investors as volatile as a penny stock for a South American mining company.

Fratrik continuously averages spot growth (or decline) over four years. By doing so, he explained, “the impact of two election years (one presidential) and two non-election years are incorporated” in any review or forecast.

So, what did Fratrik’s arithmetic reveal? Basically, that spot is growing at a 3% or 4% clip and will continue at that pace for at least the next several years.

If Fratrik is correct — and he assures me he is always correct — spot revenue is bumping along at about the same rate as real GDP plus inflation. That’s not terrible, but that’s not great either. That’s certainly not the kind of growth that broadcasters expected in the good old days and it’s not the kind of growth that will attract outside investors or cause a spike in station values.


According to SNL Kagan, the TV station trading multiple has been stuck between 7 and 8 for the past few years now.

SNL Kagan’s spot forecast is even stingier than Fratrik’s, mostly because it does not see much growth in local spot. Between this year and 2018, it says, local will grow just 10%. With the slow-motion collapse of newspaper publishing, most broadcasters think local will grow much faster than that. [Editor’s note: In the original posting, SNL Kagan’s estimate of local growth was incorrectly reported as 6.5%.]

But broadcasting is no longer dependent on the single revenue stream. Over the past decade or so, it has been able to develop two other important streams — retransmission consent fees and digital media.

Retrans is more than a mere stream now. According to SNL Kagan, it has grown from $200 million in 2006 to $3.3 billion in 2013. This year, according to the research firm’s forecasters, it will jump 30% to $4.3 billion and from there another 76% to $7.6 billion in 2019.

Digital is a trickle by comparison. Even in 2018, Fratrik says, it will still constitute only 5% of the industry revenue, although broadcasters more attuned to exploiting new media will do much better than that average.

But what digital lacks in share of revenue, it makes up with in growth. Fratrik says that it will grow 10% to 12% a year for the next four or five years. In a perfect world, I would note, that would be the growth rate of spot.

Fratrik also thinks there is money to be made from entering the digital agency business, in which local stations shepherd local small and medium businesses through the digital media maze. “That’s what you see with some of the large groups buying an agency and other types of services,” he says.

But, again, except for a few groups, the agency business is not going to amount for much relative to spot and retrans.

To recap, most of broadcasting revenue growth will be coming from squeezing cable and satellite operators for more retrans money.

Like the SNL Kagan analysts, the broadcasters who spoke at the SNL Kagan conference said they believe there is still plenty of upside in retrans.

Nexstar Broadcasting CEO Perry Sook told conference attendees that the retrans game is still in “the third inning.”

Retrans is a “three times opportunity,” he said. In other words, he believes his groups can triple its retrans revenue. That figures to $2.50-$3 per sub per month per network affiliates. (According to SNL Kagan, Nexstar derived about 22% of its total revenue from retrans in 2013.)

On the whole, broadcasters draw 35% of the audience on cable and satellite, yet they get only about 9% of the fees the cable and satellite pay to programmers, Sook said. ‘There is still inequity in the value we bring to the package and in the value we are being compensated out of that package. “

Others made the same fair-share argument. “We are way below where we need to be,” said Deborah McDermott, Media General’s SVP, broadcast markets.

I’ll say. We all know that retrans payments are only a fraction of the total programming fees that cable and satellite pay out to basic cable networks. But that’s not the worst of it. The latest SNL Kagan research shows broadcasters also trailing cable’s regional sports networks — by a substantial margin. This year, the sports networks will take in $6.3 billion compared to the broadcasters’ $4.3 billion.

There are a few problems with thinking that retrans will keep moving up its steep growth curve.

One is that the negotiations with the pay TV operators get tougher as the fees go higher, especially for smaller broadcast groups. “It’s an extremely challenging and difficult environment,” said Randy Bongarten, CEO of Bonten Media, at the conference. “None of these negotiations is easy. In every case, we are negotiating with a company that has far more resource than we have.”

Another is that cable and satellite are making headway in their campaign to rewrite laws and regulations to make it tougher for broadcasters to negotiate for increasingly higher fees. They get a boost every time negotiations break down and subscribers suddenly can’t find their favorite broadcast TV shows.

David Amy, COO of Sinclair Broadcast Group, acknowledged the problem during his panel. When retrans negotiation go bad and broadcast signals go dark on cable and satellite systems, he said, broadcasters are “demonized as if they are destroying consumers … . It’s absurd and ridiculous.”

The biggest problem with retrans revenue is that broadcasters don’t get to keep it all.  The broadcast networks believe they are entitled to a hefty portion of their affiliates’ retrans revenue and they have been steadily increasing their demands for what is commonly called reverse comp over the past four or five years.

At Tuesday conference, SNL Kagan analyst Robin Flynn said that the affiliates are passing through about 45% of or their retrans dollars to the network in the form of reverse comp and that that percentage will top out at 55%, not counting special surchages for sports rights.

I’m sure broadcasters would like to believe Flynn, but I don’t see any reason why the networks will stop at 55%. Why should they? They will keep asking for more because they can.

Bongarten said they will keep asking because they have to — because the cost of sports and other premium TV programming keeps going up. If the networks are going to stay in the bidding, they are going to need help from the affiliates, he said.

“If you want to know what affiliates will pay in reverse comp, tell me where sports rights are going, tell me where … costs of other premium product is going.”

So despite the difficulties of retrans negotiations and possible blowback in Washington, broadcasters have to press for more, Bongarten said. “Whatever it is the networks are charging, we’ve got to get that and we have to get some kind of markup on that to preserve our business model.”

By the way, most still talk of reverse comp as a share of retrans revenue, but that’s really no longer the case. The networks are starting to decouple reverse comp from retrans and simply asking for payments from affiliates based on the number of home they reach — a fixed fee.

The only network executive to speak at SNL Kagan was Michael Biard, president of  distribution for the Fox Networks Group, and he didn’t want to get into how much Fox would ultimately be demanding of affiliates, but he said retrans and reverse will grow in lock step. “I see them moving on the same slope.”

Biard also tried to reassure affiliates that whatever the Fox demands, they would not break the affiliates.  “They are healthy businesses and I expect them to be healthy going forward.”

It seems that the networks are taking turns in being the reverse comp bad guy. Four years ago, it was Fox. Now, when you talk to broadcasters, it seems that ABC and CBS are the heavies.

So that’s the broadcast revenue picture as of this Friday in June 2014. If it’s not as bright as you would like, you should consider this: With the Supreme Court seemingly determined to remove all caps on political fundraising, political advertising may grow faster than the prognosticator are now willing to say.

What’s more, two of growth revenue sources — retrans and digital — didn’t really exist a decade ago.

Maybe there’s another revenue stream forming out there right now.

Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck. He can be contacted at 973-701-1067 or [email protected]. You can read earlier columns here.

Comments (8)

Leave a Reply

kendra campbell says:

June 6, 2014 at 1:35 pm

It is delusional to believe cable/satellite subscribers will absorb 100% $ increases over the next five years. Reality is going to be very messy.

    Wagner Pereira says:

    June 6, 2014 at 2:00 pm

    Basic Math (which apparently you need). 20%-25% of Cable Bill is for basic programming program fees, depending on company. ~35% of viewing is to the 4 OTA Networks. Simple reallocation of fees to viewership is all that is needed.

    alicia farmer says:

    June 6, 2014 at 2:20 pm

    “Simple reallocation…is all that is needed”. LOL! Tell that to the subscribers who will bail out at the rate of 5% a year.

    Wagner Pereira says:

    June 6, 2014 at 3:36 pm

    The subscriber does not reallocate programming fees @ a MVPD. The MVPD does. The clueless idiots are out in force today!

Dale Godfrey says:

June 6, 2014 at 3:57 pm

I’ve known several bright, able, talented broadcasters, and broadcast executives, who are considering flat out leaving the TV broadcast business entirely because of the uncertainty as Harry has stated in his article. Looking back and what seemed a stable, predictable business a few decades ago, can’t say I blame them!

Rachel Martin says:

June 6, 2014 at 5:16 pm

Most agree that cable companies do not want to keep increasing cable fees to the public and price themselves out of business. The next major shift will be the 50+ networks that line the bottom of the ratings barrel. Why should AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner, and Charter continue to pay .10 to .40 per sub/month. Cable companies will start shrinking the number of networks based on viewership. If you have viewers you get money. Insider is dead on

Floriana Sheykina says:

June 7, 2014 at 6:24 am

I continue to be amazed how clueless the general public is to the fact that over the air signal reception is easily available. I live on Long Island about 30 miles from the Empire State Building and the reception I get is outstanding and my antenna is indoors . I still have Fios, but the over the air picture is better and the number of stations I receive is about 25.

Joe Jaime says:

June 12, 2014 at 9:10 pm

I might consider the “down and dirty” local infomercials on my sub channels in med to small markets on a one year contract.. Beats giving away commercial inventory.

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