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Viacom Slide Softens

Viacom shares continued to dip Thursday, the second full day after Citigroup media analyst Jason Bazinet downgraded the stock to “sell,” but the drop was less dramatic than in earlier trading.

Viacom shares closed the day down 2% ($1.32 per share), finishing at $66.48 each. It was an improvement over the 7% drop the stock endured Jan. 14 – Falling $4.83 per share to $67.80 each – after Bazinet said he expected the company could be dropped by Dish Network in its next round of carriage negotiations.

Bazinet said he didn’t know when that would happen – he guessed sometime this year – but said there was at least a 50% chance it would come true. He drew on other distributors that have dropped the troubled youth-oriented channels – like Cable One and Suddenlink Communications – which so far have been able to navigate the darkness with manageable subscriber losses.

If Dish does decide to drop the channels, it would be the latest and largest blow to the home of MTV and Comedy Central in what has been an increasingly pugilistic past 12 months. In April, Viacom channels went dark to Phoenix-based Cable One, leaving its 500,000 video subscribers without access to youth-oriented programming like Teen Mom, The Daily Show and SpongeBob Square Pants.  In October, the Viacom networks went dark to Suddenlink Communications' 1.1 million customers.

Dish, with 14 million subscribers, would be the largest distributor to decide not to carry Viacom. While neither side would comment on carriage negotiations, someone familiar with the process said that Viacom’s Dish deal doesn’t expire for at least another year.

Dish has not been shy about allowing networks to go dark – eight Turner networks (including CNN, Adult Swim and Cartoon Network) were lost to the satellite company’s customers for about a month last year before an extension was worked out to get them back on the air through March. The two have since reached a long-term deal for the channels.

Other spats include a 46-hour blackout of Viacom channels in 2004, AMC Networks’ nearly four months of zombie-free darkness in 2012 and others.  

Dish was also locked in a blackout of Fox News Channel and Fox Business Network, but the nearly four-week standoff that has resulted so far in the loss of 90,000 Dish customers, according to Fox officials, was resolved Thursday.

While Dish could be using a potential blackout as a negotiating tactic – much like most cable networks do with distributors – it seems that the Viacom networks would be an important part of the lineup for Dish’s new over-the-top service, dubbed Sling TV. Viacom channels were conspicuously absent from the 12 channels that will initially be part of Sling TV’s introductory $20 per month package.

It should be noted that while Viacom appears to be a popular whipping boy when it comes to carriage negotiations, it secured several deals over the past 12 months representing about 25% of its subscriber base, including agreements with Time Warner Cable and Verizon Communications. During its fiscal fourth quarter conference call with analysts in November, Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman said that the programmer had about 70% of its subscribers were covered by deals that won’t expire for the next three to eight years.

Bazinet also warned that losing Dish could force Viacom into seeking out a deal -- perhaps recombining with its former corporate partner CBS – to secure carriage. In Bazinet’s thinking, distributors would be hard pressed to darken Viacom’s networks if it also meant dropping the CBS broadcast network.

Being acquired by another programmer is also an option, albeit less likely because of the size of a potential deal and Viacom’s own ratings pressures. Bazinet said that a possible suitor could be Discovery Communications, but set the odds of a deal happening at about 10%.

While losing out on Dish’s 14 million subscribers would cut into Viacom’s bottom line – Bazinet estimates it would result in a loss of $704 million in ad revenue and affiliate fees for the programmer – subscriber losses could go both ways. While Cable One said its subscriber losses leveled off after the initial shock of losing Viacom channels wore off, its markets are largely rural, largely conservative and largely older. There’s no telling whether Dish’s subscriber base – a mix of rural and more urban markets nationwide – would react the same way.   

Some have speculated that Dish could be putting forth the idea of dropping the channels to force Viacom to sign on to Sling TV – Viacom already has done deals for Sony’s PlayStation Vue OTT service – it seems a little odd that it would start this fight a year before it had to. Every carriage deal Dish has done so far for Sling TV was done in the normal negotiating cycle, including Turner, Disney, Scripps and A+E Networks. A+E Networks did not make it to the initial lineup of 12 channels, but is expected to show up in later iterations of the product.

“It’s hard to get a deal done outside of a deal cycle,” said one industry executive familiar with the matter.

It also seems odd that Dish would pick a fight with Viacom even as it uses the company’s programming as a marketing tool to lure Cable One and Suddenlink customers to Dish. Dish resellers have regularly used character images from Viacom shows – SpongeBob is particularly popular – in marketing to attract former cable customers to the fold.

Still, stranger things have happened in the world of carriage negotiations. Only time will tell if this gets added to the list.