You might call it the Central Coast Cable Conundrum.
And it goes something like this: During the national rollup of cable television properties that took place in the 1990s, a number of major players grabbed a sliver of the region.
But nobody could get their arms around the whole enchilada, so balkanization reigns. One result is to hand a lot of power over to local TV stations whose signals actually trump the ability of any single operator to move advertising across the Ventura, Santa Barbara and SLO markets.
To briefly review, Charter Communications dominates San Luis Obispo, Comcast has north Santa Barbara County, Cox has South Santa Barbara County and Time-Warner has much of Ventura County, with slivers of the county held by others.
Suddenly, things could be changing, thanks to some very clever dealmaking going on in Denver, Philadelphia and New York.
The ringleader of this unlikely consolidation is John Malone, CEO of Colorado-based Liberty Media and the pioneering former chief of a cable empire that now makes up a lot of the Comcast holdings. Malone, a person I know slightly from my days at The Denver Post, has said that one of his biggest regrets was selling Tele-Communications Inc. or TCI, to AT&T, which then sold them to Philly-based Comcast. This year Liberty, which owns programming and other assets worldwide, has gotten back into the cable game big-time by taking a 27 percent stake in Charter.
Now Malone and Brian Roberts of Comcast are talking about splitting up the assets of Time-Warner Cable, a company that neither could buy on their own. The reason they can’t buy it on their own is that once-debt laden Charter, for all of its swagger, could not take on the $65 billion debt load that buying Time-Warner would entail. Comcast can’t take on all the Time-Warner properties because even the antitrust softies in the
Obama Administration’s Department of Justice would likely block the merger due to market concentration issues.
Moreover, Comcast already owns NBC, CNBC, MSNBC and all of its related media properties, meaning that one programming company would also own one major network and much of the nation’s cable properties. But a joint venture could put an end to some of the anti-trust issues and put Malone back in the cable driver’s seat.
Why? The new cable oligarchs are a fairly visionary bunch. Sure they want to extract more money from the networks for carrying their signals, but they also want a big platform to experiment with new mobile strategies to compete with Netflix and lesser companies such as Yahoo and AOL that increasingly are betting their future on moving video through cable and other broadband pipes to the home. Time-Warner, of course, is the cable-publishing-media behemoth based on Avenue of the Americas in mid-town Manhattan.
Meanwhile, back on the Central Coast, it’s anybody’s guess as to how the dust will settle. One scenario would be for Charter to gobble up the lonely Comcast outpost in the Santa Maria Valley and for Comcast to fold Ventura County into a newly expanded greater LA market.
Or in a bigger grand bargain among the cable giants, Charter or Comcast might emerge with a giant footprint in the Golden State. Bloomberg News speculates that Charter could wind up with Los Angeles and Comcast with a big presence in New York and Dallas.
Odds are that any deal that carves up Time-Warner Cable will put Ventura County’s cable systems in play — it is worth remembering that Time-Warner got its Ventura County systems when scandal-plagued Adelphia was broken up seven years ago. The one stable player appears to be Cox, which seems to thrive on serving wealthy enclaves on California’s coast, so a buyout of the Santa Barbara system would be expensive — not impossible but so far unlikely.
The bottom line is that the cable television business is going through a big shakeup. And if one or two big dominoes start to fall, the tumbling almost certainly will shake out on the Central Coast.
We’ve had a very exciting year at the Business Times, with plenty of news to break, eight successful events under our belt, a brand new website and growing circulation. We’d like to take a minute to thank all of you who make our success possible and to wish you the very happiest holiday season.
• Contact Henry Dubroff at [email protected]