Falcone: LPTV + 3.0 + OTT = Big Opportunity
Does the already crowded media ecosystem need a “broadcast technology platform” with a near national footprint that can provide advanced TV services to the growing ranks of cord-cutters?
High-risk, high-profile investor Philip Falcone thinks so.
Over the past year, HC2 Broadcasting, a unit of the publicly traded HC2 Holdings controlled by Falcone, has spent around $100 million buying up mostly low-power TV stations that it hopes will — when aggregated and leveraged with OTT, cloud technology and the new ATSC 3.0 broadcast standard — produce such a platform.
“Content providers are going to need eyeballs,” says HC2 spokesman Andy Backman. “If we can give them a nationwide network where they can reach 60%, 70%, 80% of the U.S. population, we believe there’s value in that.
“The goal is to build the largest, most comprehensive and flexible state-of-the-art broadcast OTA distribution platform in the U.S.
“We believe that this distribution platform will create an avenue for high-end content providers to deliver their products to more viewers over-the-air while positioning us on the cutting edge of this rapidly changing media technology distribution platform technology.”
HC2’s big spectrum grab came last year when it acquired a half interest in DTV America with its 52 low-power stations in 42 markets for $17.5 million. DTV stations serve as outlets for a variety of networks, including MNT, Telemundo, Cozi TV and NewsMax.
It also scooped up Mako Communications ($28.4 million) and Azteca America/Northstar Media ($33 million). Those, with other smaller deals, have extended its OTA reach to 110 markets and around 60% of TV homes, Backman says.
By the latest count, he says, HC2 operates 150 stations, of which 10 are full power and 140 are low power. Of the LPTVs, 42 are Class As. HC2 has also collected around 500 “silent” licenses and construction permits.
“The objective is ultimately to get to around 80% of the U.S. markets as we continue to build our network,” he says.
Responsible for building the platform are Managing Director of Strategic Development Louis Libin and Chief Technology Officer Kurt Hanson. Both are experienced broadcast engineers. Libin came from Sinclair; Hanson, from ABC.
Libin says the nascent platform will rely on ATSC 3.0, which means transitioning the RF infrastructure of all stations to the new standard. For him, its chief attribute is its “robustness” — its ability to deliver a solid signal even in markets with challenging terrain.
And integrating OTT with OTA is critical so you can reach viewers that are on their smartphones and other digital devices, Libin says. “You have to be able to offer the viewers this multiplatform portable experience so that they can enjoy content any place, any time, on any platform.”
It will also provide service to areas where even the robust 3.0 cannot penetrate, he says.
HC2 will also take advantage of the efficiencies of virtualization and cloud technology, Libin says. The cloud becomes the “processing infrastructure,” handling transcoding, encryption, digital rights management, dynamic ad insertion, audience measurement, streaming and other functions.
Right now, he says, HC2 is exploring the various cloud options, public or private, this company or that. “Our timing is right on this because the cost of the cloud used to be prohibitive. The costs are becoming much less and much more flexible.”
Libin says the platform is being built primarily for ad-supported services, but that it will be integrated with PayPal to give content providers the ability to charge for programming or services.
Some broadcasters familiar with HC2 see it as a purely speculative play by Falcone. “They are aggregating spectrum to see what they can do with it,” says one.
Falcone built a fortune as a bond-trader and, starting in 2001, a hedge fund manager. According to a 2015 New York Times financial profile, his Harbinger Capital fund doubled the money of investors in 2007 by betting against subprime mortgages. His personal take was $1.7 billion.
But it’s been a bumpy ride since then. He was caught short in the 2008 recession, and poor results coming out of the recession and a run-in with SEC regulators doomed the hedge fund.
His first comeback attempt was the public HRG Group, which he used to acquire operating companies like Spectrum Brands (Black & Decker and George Foreman grills). But so-so results and the SEC overhang eventually led to his departure.
HC2, another public acquisition vehicle, is, as the Times put it, “Falcone comeback No. 2.”
In addition to HC2 Broadcasting, parent HC2 Holding has interests in natural gas, steel fabrication and undersea cable installation. Last month, it announced the sale of its biotech company for what could be more than $1 billion if milestones are met.
An earlier spectrum play by Falcone came to nothing in 2012. LightSquared proposed a wireless broadband service reusing satellite frequencies with land-based transmitters. But the FCC nixed the plan after concluding that it would interfere with GPS services.
While the advanced network takes shape, the HC2 stations will continue to air their current wide range of programming and generate revenue from it.
And Backman says there is interest from other programmers. “Believe me, when we started talking about this platform nine months ago, the number of calls that Phil has gotten and others have gotten from content providers looking to get in front of eyeballs has been very significant.”
The FCC created low-power television in the 1980s with its limited coverage in the hope that it would spawn hyperlocal and targeted programming as a complement to the conventional TV that the full-power network affiliates were airing.
That concept is still alive at HC2, says Libin. One use of the HC2 stations could be serving small communities or “affinity” groups. The stations “would relate to them and be able to give them the content and the ads that they want.”
Other broadcasters on the forefront of implementing ATSC 3.0 are aware of HC2 and its ambitions. Jerry Fritz, of One Media, says he is “happy to have them on board.
“Any forward-thinking broadcasters who believes that 3.0 is where the future is is good for us.”
John Hane, president of Spectrum Co., a joint venture of Sinclair and Nexstar, says that he has spoken to HC2 about participating in Spectrum’s ATSC 3.0 trial in Dallas where HC2 happens to have a full-power station.
Like Fritz, he says he welcomes anybody with an interest in advancing 3.0.