NBCUniversal Quietly Sold $500 Million Stake in Snapchat

Evan Spiegel speaks during the Disrupt SF 2019 conference - Getty -H 2020
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Despite the previously unreported sale late last year, NBCU says it's committed to the Snap relationship and is producing more programming than ever for the platform.

With the entertainment giants pouring billions of dollars into new streaming services while also balancing debt obligations, they are taking a hard look at their portfolios to find pieces that may not fit with their new strategies.

Among the recent divestitures: NBCUniversal quietly sold off its entire equity stake in Snap Inc. last year, The Hollywood Reporter found in Comcast's Jan. 31 10-K filing with government regulators.

Three years ago this month, as Snap Inc. went public, NBCUniversal announced that it had invested $500 million in the company. Steve Burke wrote a note to staff at the time, highlighting the Snap investment and similar investments in BuzzFeed and Vox Media, writing that “we have become a better, more digitally-focused company as a result.”

“Looking forward, we will continue to be aggressive as digital content consumption increases,” he added. “Investing in Snap is a key step in that direction.”

In the digital space, three years may as well be an eternity. NBCUniversal subsequently acquired Sky in a $39 billion deal, increasing its debt load, and has committed more than $2 billion to launch its own streaming service, Peacock.

With those obligations, liquidity can outweigh long-term ambitions. A January regulatory filing from Comcast disclosed that the company sold its entire stake in Snap. The company recorded a $293 million gain on the sale in fiscal 2019. The company saw a $263 million loss in its Snap investment in fiscal 2018 when the stock price fell after the IPO.

In fact, nearly every media company with streaming ambitions has sold or is selling business units or investments valued at nine or even 10 figures.

Last week, ViacomCBS CEO Bob Bakish said that the company was exploring offers for its Simon & Schuster publishing business, as the company seeks to invest in a new “house of brands” streaming service and in its free streaming offering, Pluto TV. Simon & Schuster, combined with CBS’ Black Rock headquarters, could bring ViacomCBS more than $2 billion in proceeds.

In January, Disney, which is pouring billions into Disney+ and Hulu, sold off the FoxNext video game development studio to Scopely in a deal said to be valued in the low nine-figures.

Last November, AT&T, which is launching HBO Max this spring, sold off its stake in the Game Show Network to partner Sony Pictures Entertainment for more than $500 million.

“You get better efficiency and performance if you spin these things out and they can determine their own destinies, because the corporate level direction often is unsuitable for these highly specialized businesses,” says Hal Vogel, CEO of Vogel Capital Management.

In other words, despite an industry trend toward consolidation and getting bigger, companies are getting strategic about where their capital is best deployed, and not being afraid to jettison investments or business units that no longer align with their strategies.

“Oftentimes you are taking assets that aren’t a great fit with the other assets, where there aren’t really a lot of strategic benefits, or minimal growth, and by reinvesting it you are hoping to get a better return on that investment,” Neil Begley, senior vice president at Moodys, says of ViacomCBS. “If they invest it in intellectual property that would help fortify or build a streaming platform, I look at that as favorable. If they buy back a lot of stock with it, I would say that does absolutely nothing for creating shareholder value.”

The problem, of course, is that these new services require billions of dollars in capital in the short and medium term, and won’t be profitable for some time.

“They all have years ahead of them with losses in the streaming business,” Vogel says. “This is not like, you turn a switch and you make an extra buck of profit in the next year.”

As for NBCUniversal’s Snap investment, a NBCU source says the company is still committed to its Snap relationship, and is producing more programming than ever for the platform, including four daily shows slated to run on Snap during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

NBCU and Snap launched a joint venture, Indigo, in 2017, promising to create original scripted programming for Snapchat’s mobile audience with partners including Jay and Mark Duplass’ DBP Donut studio. NBC veteran Lauren Anderson ran Indigo until she jumped to Amazon Studios, where she now oversees content for free streaming service IMDb TV.

The Indigo JV will continue, as will an advertising partnership between the companies.