Analyst: Nickelodeon Might Be in Danger of Being Dropped by Some TV Distributors

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A schoolyard brawl has broken out between kids TV powerhouse Nickelodeon and Nielsen, the company whose ratings determine advertising rates. Nick, long the leader in the space, has disputed what Nielsen says are double-digit ratings declines since September.

Aggressive cable and satellite television companies could attempt a pricing war over Viacom's flagship kids' network, suggests Sanford C. Bernstein's Todd Juenger.

Todd Juenger, analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein, on Tuesday raised the specter of the "improbable" -- that cable and satellite services might drop Viacom network Nickelodeon. The analyst mentioned declining ratings, the availability of content online and a thirst by cable and satellite companies to cut costs as linchpins behind a possible action that would no doubt rock the TV industry.

Although still rather unlikely, the prospect of Viacom losing affiliate fees and advertising revenue from one of its flagship stations has been moved by Juenger from being "inconceivable" to being "improbable," which he notes is "a significant difference."

According to ratings reports, Nickelodeon's viewership is down almost 30 percent in the past several months.

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Juenger says the overall kids audience universe is down but targets cannibalization from online streaming as a primary factor in a decline in Nick's ratings. He says that ratings are down 10 to 20 percent in Netflix homes, an estimation that comes from research released two months ago that compared 9,500 Netflix streamers and 9,500 nonstreamers from a sample of about 35,000 TiVo set-top users.

Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman has contradicted the notion that the availability of Nickelodeon content on Netflix caused a ratings erosion, saying he didn't think "the limited amount of Nick library content on Netflix … has had a significant impact" and blaming lost ratings on "some ratings systemic issues" at Nielsen.

But Juenger is unconvinced, saying that the problem could extend beyond Nick to Viacom's other networks including MTV. "We fear the long-term value of the flagship networks is in jeopardy," he writes.

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Perception of streaming cannibalization could matter as much as the real-or-not truth. One of the comments given by Dish in its announcement that it would soon drop AMC was that customers could still see Mad Men, The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad and other AMC shows through such outlets as Amazon, iTunes and Netflix.

In fact, Juenger offers an imaginary conversation of how a carriage-fee negotiation might proceed between Viacom and multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs) such as cable and satellite companies:

  • Viacom: "We're here to talk about the next six years of 8 percent price increases, plus 2 percent for TV Everywhere rights."
  • MVPD: "Your ratings are down. 26 percent at Nick. And our subs can get your content on Netflix, Amazon and Hulu. We should be talking about how much less we should be paying you, not how much more."
  • Viacom: "We're investing heavily to restore our audiences."
  • MVPD: "Great, maybe the audience will come back. But we're not paying for it ahead of time."
  • Viacom: "We need 8 percent (plus 2 percent). Take it or leave it." ("What are you going to do, drop us?")
  • MVPD: At least threatens, with some credibility, to "leave it."

"If such a public flare-up actually materializes, we believe the stock will be penalized swiftly and meaningfully," says Juenger, pointing out that AMC's stock has lagged behind the S&P by 8 percent since Dish's announcement to drop the channel.

The analyst also cites the introduction of the commercial-skipping AutoHop as indication that MVPDs are getting more aggressive. He asks, "If Dish is willing to inject this much disruption and risk into its affiliate relationships in order to reset the balance on retrans, then why would it be hard to believe Dish or somebody else would be willing to take on Viacom in a public pricing war, perhaps even going dark for some period of time?"

Other analysts have offered more sympathetic explanations for Nick's ratings woes.

For example, Michael Nathanson at Nomura Equity Research on Monday gave three reasons for the viewership trends. First, he says that Nielsen's recently revised TV household demographic estimates are impacting viewing data by 1 or 2 percent. Second, improved children-specific programming on Netflix has caused viewing behavior on the margins to change. Finally, he writes, "While it might be hard to believe, significantly warmer weather this winter kept kids outside and away from the TV."

Most of the analysts still have "buy" ratings on Viacom. They argue that the Paramount Pictures division is doing well, the company has been executing an aggressive stock-buyback program, and even though ratings for Viacom networks are said to be down about 10 percent in total, that hasn't yet translated into much of a loss in advertising revenue.


Twitter: @eriqgardner