Is Gannett Making the Right Bet on the Future of Broadcast TV?

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Today’s announcement that Gannett Company Inc. (NYSE: GCI) would pay $1.5 billion in cash and assume more than $700 million debt to acquire Belo Corp. (NYSE: BLC) comes about two months after Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. (NASDAQ: SBGI) paid about $373 million for Fisher Communications Inc. (NASDAQ: FSCI).

After the Fisher acquisition is completed, Sinclair will own 134 TV stations in 69 markets and reach nearly 34% of all U.S. TV households. Once the deal for Belo is completed, Gannett will own 43 TV stations, about half of which will be in the top 25 U.S. markets. Interestingly, Gannett will compete head-to-head with Sinclair because both acquirers get new stations in the Northwest U.S.

Sinclair is the third largest owner of broadcast network TV stations, trailing only CBS Corp. (NYSE: CBS) and Fox, which is owned by News Corp. (NASDAQ: NWSA). Gannet will be the fourth largest, trailing Sinclair by just four percentage points.

There is now a movement to acquire TV stations in an attempt to scale. The thinking has to be that TV is not going to follow the same path as the newspaper business and the music industry and be left behind in the inexorable march toward a digital future.

Do the TV station owners believe they are insulated from over-the-top programming from the likes of Netflix Inc. (NASDAQ: NFLX) and Amazon.com Inc. (NASDAQ: AMZN)? On one hand, outfits like Sinclair and Gannett seem safe because even if consumers drop their cable subscriptions (“cut the cord”), they’ll still be able to get over-the-air programming from the TV station owners.

On the other hand, station owners could be especially vulnerable if Amazon or Netflix or Google Inc. (NASDAQ: GOOG) or Apple Inc. (NASDAQ: AAPL) get serious about Internet TV boxes. And don’t count out Intel Corp. (NASDAQ: INTC) which is planning to get into the over-the-top programming game by year’s end. Intel may be willing to pay a lot for content rights, making it more difficult for Sinclair and Gannett and smaller station owners to compete.

Sure these may be network affiliates, but the networks will be looking for the biggest payday they can get and that won’t be coming from the likes of Gannett or Sinclair.

The switch to over-the-top programming appears to be the future, but it is hard to predict when we’ll know the switch is official. A change of this magnitude is likely to take years and TV station owners will likely be nibbled to death by ducks. Gannett’s acquisition today is likely to pay off in the short- and even perhaps the medium-term, but if the company wants to be around 10 years from now it should be thinking of this as just a starting point to a real overhaul of its media business.

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