John Rogers Comments on Gannett Co.
On June 13th, Gannett agreed to acquire Belo Corporation (BLC) and its 20 television stations that reach more than 14 percent of U.S. television households in a $2.2 billion transaction. The New York Times dubbed it, "…the biggest local television station sale in more than a decade."2 The acquisition will nearly double Gannett's broadcast properties (from 23 to 43) and create the fourth-largest owner of major network affiliates reaching nearly one-third of all U.S. television households. Gannett will have 21 stations in the top 25 markets and will become the second largest owner of network-affiliated television stations. While normally skeptical and wary of acquisitions, we immediately saw the value of this transaction and future possibilities for Gannett Investors also applauded the deal as evidenced by the fact that Gannett's stock closed +34% higher on the day of the announcement while Belo shares increased +28%. The reason being, Belo will not only accelerate Gannett's transformation into a diversified media company with higher profitability and returns—it will also give Gannett more leverage when negotiating the valuable retransmission fees local television stations receive from cable and satellite operators in exchange for the right to carry those stations on their systems. Size matters when seeking higher retransmission fees with cable and satellite distributors and also when bargaining with the broadcast networks for their cut of that revenue. Retransmission revenues create a dual revenue stream for Gannett, similar to cable networks, while reducing cyclicality from what has historically been an advertising-only business model. And whereas advertising can be hard to forecast, contractual agreements make retransmission revenues predictable and sticky. Moreover, we anticipate a meaningful increase in these revenues once broadcast network compensation becomes more aligned with their ratings.
Despite primetime viewership declines, television still remains the most effective mass advertising platform precisely because it reaches so many people at once. In fact, broadcast television’s significantly larger primetime ratings and greater household coverage give it a distinct advantage over cable. Even though the number of adults under 24 who regularly watch television has declined, adults 65 and older continue to watch. Bernstein Research estimates that adults 65 and over watch 8 hours of television a day, twice as much as adults aged 18-24.
While acknowledging the inherent structural issues in print media, we welcome Gannett’s multimedia diversification through strategic investments and acquisitions. In publishing, Gannett is succeeding in converting its customers from print to a digital platform with an all-access content subscription model that has been a significant driver of recent revenue stability. It is worth noting that the company’s digital platforms attract 54.6 million unique users each month. Meanwhile, broadcast trends remain encouraging. Strong local advertising—specifically from auto dealers, increasing political campaign expenditures and accelerating retransmission revenues—have propelled the company’s strong operating performance. Finally, CareerBuilder’s future looks promising (Gannett owns 52.9%) as labor markets improve and it continues to gain market share from competitors. Gannett CEO Gracia Martore has also proven to be a visionary leader, patient investor and strong capital allocator. To the latter point, she aggressively strengthened the balance sheet by substantially reducing debt before allocating capital to share buybacks, dividends and strategic acquisitions.
Even though we still like small town community newspapers—last week, Warren Buffett purchased his 30th community paper since November 2011—we think Gannett’s real value lies in its ongoing evolution. Given the stock’s recent performance, Wall Street seems to agree.
From John Rogers' Ariel Fund and Ariel Appreciate Fund portfolio manager letter third quarter 2013.