Media Forecast: Five Changes to Watch for in 2010

If 2009 taught the media industry one thing, it's that no one knows anything. Everywhere you looked, the mighty were laid low, and young upstarts claimed all the buzz and eyeballs, if not the revenues. For those who could afford it, bet-hedging looked like the best strategy -- a way of surviving until the dust clears and the shape of the new world begins to emerge. As 2009 draws to a close, here are a few thoughts on the media-industry developments and market forces that will make headlines in the year to come.1. Bold Talk and Cautious Action on Paid Content

Getting consumers to foot some of the bill for news and other content was the consuming obsession of media executives in 2009. From News Corp.'s (NWSA) Rupert Murdoch to Time Warner's (TWX) Jeffrey Bewkes to MediaNews Group's Dean Singleton, it was practically all anyone wanted to talk about.

%%DynaPub-Enhancement class="enhancement contentType-HTML Content fragmentId-1 payloadId-61603 alignment-right size-small"%% But talking about getting readers to cough up cash isn't a business model. Neither is forming coalitions, collecting signed letters of intent, or muttering darkly about Google. To have a business model, you have to move past the preliminaries and actually start charging for stuff that was previously free -- and that's a step media companies have found difficult to take. News Corp. has already backed down from a pledge to erect pay walls on all of its websites by July 2010, while The New York Times has repeatedly punted the decision on how and when to start charging. It's obvious the big players all want to wait and see what happens when someone else tries it before any of them jumps in. And as the advertising economy perks up, however timidly, it's only going to make the prospect of scaring away traffic with pay walls that much less appealing.

2. Motivated Sellers, but Few Buyers

What happens when a cascade of media bankruptcies leave banks like JPMorgan Chase (JPM) owning all kinds of newspapers, magazines and TV stations they never wanted? It just could lead to the biggest buyer's market the media world has ever seen. "If a bank controls a company, they're definitely a willing seller," says investment banker Andrew Buchholtz, managing director of A. Buchholtz & Co. "Everyone agrees that there's so much M&A activity that needs to occur to rationalize the media industry."

But don't expect the great fire sale to start until the fourth quarter of 2010 at the earliest. While few accidental owners will have the patience to wait for a full recovery, most understand that waiting until ad revenues at least begin to improve will have a large effect on the valuations they get. "I think it's going to be a gradual thing," says Reed Phillips, managing partner of DeSilva & Phillips. "You're not going to overnight see everybody putting their companies on the block. But as the economy improves, the business will improve and therefore will become a more attractive acquisition target."

3. Tablets, Tablets Everywhere

Are you reading this on a laptop or desktop computer? Twelve months from now, you're more likely to be perusing it on a magazine-sized, full-color, touch-screen-equipped electronic reader -- or so the consumer electronics industry seems to think, and publishers are only too eager to buy into the vision. Many think such a device is the missing link that, by taking the reading experience out of the browser environment, will finally allow them to charge for print-style content. (See point No. 1 above.)

By far the most talked-about gadget on the way is Apple's (AAPL) rumored tablet computer, which the world may finally get a look at in January. But a number of cheaper and more function-specific devices are slated to hit the market in 2010, including new entries from Plastic Logic and Hearst. Meanwhile, a a consortium consisting of Hearst, News Corp., Time Inc., Meredith (MDP) and Conde Nast is working to develop applications that will translate ink-and-paper content into the screen-and-pixel realm.

4. The Mom-and-Pop Nonprofit Newsroom

Newspapers are dying wherever you look. What's going to replace them as a wellspring of investigative, public-interest and accountability journalism? It just might be small, not-for-profit operations like ProPublica, Texas Tribune, MinnPost and the Huffington Post Investigative Fund. This year saw the birth of numerous such start-ups, most of them funded to some degree by philanthropy, and many boasting staffs rich with Pulitzer Prize-winners. But 2009 will be the first real test of whether they can have an impact sufficient to convince their benefactors to keep them going.

5. Twilight of the Media Gods

Maybe it's a trend, or maybe it's just coincidence, but some of the biggest individuals in media are either moving on or likely to do so in the months to come. Oprah Winfrey has already announced the end of her syndicated show, although it won't actually go off the air until mid-2011. Howard Stern's $500 million contract with Sirius XM (SIRI) is up next year, and the satellite radio operator is expected to offer him less money to renew. While some doubt Stern has any better options, it's hard to imagine the notoriously prideful DJ quietly accepting a lesser deal. Then there's Jay Leno, whose 10 p.m. show is dragging down the ratings of NBC affiliates' 11 p.m. newscasts. The transfer of ownership from GE (GE) to Comcast (CMCSA) could provide just the out NBC needs to truncate the experiment with minimum loss of face.
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