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Merrill's Media Maven

Merrill Lynch & Co. media analyst Jessica Reif Cohen spends as much as 10 months a year on the road and has a reputation as one of the most dedicated analysts covering the media sector.

But even she has to draw the line somewhere.

"Weekends are for the family," Reif Cohen said, speaking of her husband Bob, an independent television agent, and her two children Marisa, 7, and AJ, 2.

That leaves the other five days of the week for just about every major media mogul in the country.

Reif Cohen, 48, estimates that she spends at least one day per week on the road, including trips to the West Coast and four-to-six annual excursions to Europe and Australia to visit companies and clients, mainly institutional investors.

According to some of the companies she covers, Reif Cohen would probably visit more often if allowed.

"If [vice president of investor relations] Marlene Dooner gave Jessica a green light for every time she wanted to go out with us as a management team, she'd have us on the road once a week," joked Comcast Corp. executive vice president, treasurer and co-chief financial officer John Alchin.

TENACITY RESPECTED

That attention to detail and tenaciousness has earned Alchin's respect.

"Jessica has a true facility for balancing out the various elements that go into making up a company — not just financial elements, but management, regulatory and technology — and coming up with a great overview of the entire company," Alchin said.

Viacom Inc. president and chief operating officer Mel Karmazin offered equal praise.

"Jessica is an extremely hardworking and independent analyst, whose penetrating analysis of the media business places her at the top of her field," Karmazin wrote in an e-mail. "I've always been impressed by her probing curiosity and her ability to cut to the core issues."

Reif Cohen started out in the biz almost by accident. After graduating from New York University in 1977 with a marketing degree and then earning an MBA in finance and international business two years later, the Brooklyn native held a couple of non-descript marketing jobs. But it was after she had returned from Tel Aviv — where she was an analyst for Dun & Bradstreet covering a range of businesses — and started looking for a job on Wall Street, that her life took its current tack.

"I went through the directory starting with the As, got to Arnhold & Bleichroeder and got hired by the entertainment analyst," Reif Cohen said. "I was just really lucky. I could have been hired by someone to cover autos or something."

Reif Cohen stayed at the company (now Natexis Bleichroeder Inc.) for five years, moving later to a startup affiliated with Credit Lyonnais, then to First Boston Corp. and Oppenheimer & Co. She has been at Merrill Lynch for the past 10 years.

During her 20 years, she has won several awards, including being named to Institutional Investor magazine's All-America Research squad as its first-team entertainment analyst eight years running.

Reif Cohen covers a wide range of companies — the eight publicly traded MSOs and content giants like Walt Disney Co., Viacom, News Corp., and Liberty Media Corp. among others.

"I've never been in the camp that content is king or distribution is king. I think both are critical," she said.

VALUABLE RELATIONSHIPS

When the Securities and Exchange Commission regulation created Regulation Full Disclosure in October 2000, the idea was to make information available to everyone, not just a select few. But Regulation FD has had an unintended effect.

"To some companies, their interpretation of full disclosure means to tell you nothing," Reif Cohen said. "So then my job becomes how do I get information and that's where the relationships come in."

Those relationships are integral to her research.

"Our job is tell investors what stocks to own, when to buy them and when to sell them," Reif Cohen said. "You can't do that just looking at a spreadsheet. The numbers tell part of the story, but investors are investing in a management team, not a strategy."

She also takes field trips.

"It's clearly important to talk to the most senior executives to get to the strategy and what's behind the strategy," she said. "But the operating guys, some of the most interesting things [are] whether they're in synch with their bosses. It tells you a lot."

Although long bullish on the cable sector, she is no media cheerleader.

She was one of the first analysts to downgrade AOL Time Warner Inc. (now Time Warner Inc.), about two years ago when the stock was at about $36 per share (down from the $60 range). Time Warner shares are now trading in the $18 range.

"One of my better calls," Reif Cohen said.

There is one call she wishes she could take back though: her August 2002 downgrade of Cablevision Systems Corp. to "neutral," after the company held an analyst meeting to articulate its satellite strategy. That meeting was largely considered to be a disaster, and Cablevision's stock was pummeled.

Reif Cohen regrets the downgrade only because it came at about the time the stock hit bottom. She upgraded Cablevision about four months later.

DOWNGRADE RETALIATION

Downgrading stocks has always been a tricky issue — some companies have retaliated against analysts who lowered their ratings.

"I've had meetings canceled. I've had companies go on the road with other analysts trying to refute what we said. I've been cut off, and that's only part of it," she added.

But obviously that has no bearing on her research.

"It is what it is, the advertising market is weak, or there is competition for cable," Reif Cohen said. "If you never change a rating, are you really doing your job? You're not."