What the Comcast-Time Warner deal says about the future of media
FORTUNE — Here’s a good question to ask about the Comcast-Time Warner Cable deal that was announced Thursday morning: Why isn’t Comcast (CMCSA) CEO Brian Roberts buying Viacom (VIA)? Or Fox (FOXA)? Or Time Warner (TWX) (the owner of Fortune, for now)?
Instead, Comcast is spending $45 billion to combine the nation’s No. 1 and No. 2 cable providers.
A few years ago, the story Roberts seemed to be selling was that Comcast was transforming itself into a content company, or that it would lean more heavily in that direction. Back in 2004, Roberts offered $66 billion to buy Disney (DIS). He was rebuffed. But that didn’t stop Roberts. In 2011, Comcast spent about $30 billion to buy 51% of NBCUniversal, and another $17 billion to fully complete the merger in 2011.
But here’s the thing: Despite Roberts’ lip service and big deals, Comcast never really was ever all that close to making the transition to being a content company. Here’s a group of charts I took out of Comcast’s most recent annual report.
The company generates 63% of its revenue from its cable communications, which includes sales of both television and broadband access. The Time Warner Cable (TWC) deal will tip the mix of business at Comcast even further over to the distribution business and away from content. The combined company will get 72% of its sales from delivery.
This is the opposite direction in which many of Roberts’ rivals are going. The starkest example is Jeff Bewkes at Time Warner. Bewkes decided to get out of the cable business two years ago, spinning out Time Warner Cable. Now Roberts is picking up what Bewkes cast aside.
But pretty much everywhere it seems, King Content has become the conventional wisdom. And it’s not just in the cable business but also online and even in wireless. Many people say the simplicity and depth of iTunes and Apple’s app store are what really sells iPhones.
But here’s the thing: While corporate executives and Silicon Valley startups have been talking up content, Wall Street never really seems to have bought the story. Time Warner Cable, even before the deal pushed up its shares, had a price-to-earnings multiple of around 20. Time Warner, the movie and television business (and magazines for now), has a P/E of 17. Comcast also has a P/E of 21. Disney also gets a higher multiple of earnings of 21. But John Malone’s Liberty Media (LMCA), another cable company that was also interested in Time Warner Cable, gets a P/E of 32. And Dish Corp. (DISH), the satellite cable provider, gets a P/E of 36. So clearly Wall Street thinks distribution remains the better business.
There won’t be a one-model-fits-all, but the Comcast-Time Warner deal suggests that the pendulum of big media may be swinging back to infrastructure and not what flows through the pipes. And like always, Wall Street could be influencing that shift.
That being said there is a content angle to the deal. Part of the problem of being a pure cable play is that you are hostage to the content providers. So the real reason Roberts might have been interested in NBCU in the first place was not to transform his company but just to protect it.
Time Warner Cable, which has very little content, has continually found itself in fights over content that have resulted intense negotiations and a number of channel blackouts. The merger could be a realization that Time Warner Cable could no longer go it alone with no content. Either way, Time Warner Cable won’t be alone for very much longer.