Between Amazon.com Inc’s US$8.5 billion acquisition of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and WarnerMedia’s US$130 billion merger with Discovery Inc, the recent rash of US media dealmaking has surely left European entertainment moguls ruing what might have been.
For five years, Europe’s biggest media companies have been seeking deals for the same reason that industry consolidation is accelerating in the US: They need more heft to compete effectively with streaming services Netflix Inc, Amazon Prime and The Walt Disney Co’s Disney+.
Those efforts have almost uniformly yielded no results. Vivendi SA, the French media conglomerate controlled by the billionaire Vincent Bollore, has repeatedly tried and failed to engineer deals to create a European counterweight to Netflix. The same can be said for former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Mediaset SpA.
Meanwhile, analysts perennially deem ITV PLC the most likely acquisition target among companies in the UK, yet it continues to plough ahead independently.
The economics of online streaming mean that scale is important. If a broadcaster is active in multiple countries, it does not need a given show to be a hit in every or even any market, so long as it reaches enough people overall to justify the initial investment.
Imagine you are a television producer who wants to make a US$100 million 10-episode superhero political thriller called “Game of WandaCards” or GoWC. Netflix is available in 190 countries. Say GoWC gets 300,000 viewers in the US, and each viewer brings in about US$216 revenue over two years — as is typical for the company.
Netflix would then need fewer than 1,000 additional viewers in each of its other markets to start justifying the US$100 million outlay. In a country like Germany, that would represent just 0.1 percent of the 9.4 million local subscribers that consultancy Digital-i Ltd estimates Netflix has there.
The problem Europe has is that it is a highly fragmented market with more than 11,000 television channels, most of which still depend on the advertising-based economics of linear broadcasting, where the lifetime value of a viewer is less.
Even the biggest language, German, has just 95 million native speakers in the region, largely in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. That makes it harder to justify spending US$100 million on a given show — “WandaKartenspiel” in this case.
Producers could, of course, make the show and then try to sell it to foreign distributors. That has helped Comcast Corp’s Sky pay-TV unit make a success of Babylon Berlin, a German-language detective noir series that garnered fans in the US, UK and beyond.
However, Sky happens to be the one exception to Europe’s lack of consolidation. It already operates in Italy, Germany and the UK, with 24 million subscribers across the three markets. That helps justify splurging on premium content, and it still sold some international broadcast rights to other operators.
Scale is a challenge for Vivendi’s Canal+ division, which has 8.2 million subscribers in its home market and a further 6 million in sub-Saharan Africa. Compared with Netflix’s 204 million subscribers and the 74 million of Disney+, Canal+ faces a greater financial risk in producing shows — they might simply not reach enough people.
It has to engineer complex cofunding arrangements with international peers like Westdeutscher Rundfunk, the British Film Institute or the Flanders Film Fund, and try to sell rights at trade shows.
Netflix, meanwhile, can greenlight a show and put it into 190 markets without hesitation.
This is partly why Bollore started expanding Vivendi’s stake in Telecom Italia SpA in 2015 and tried to acquire Berlusconi’s Mediaset in 2016. He wanted a bigger market.
However, the Telecom Italia efforts failed amid Italian perturbation over a French investor controlling the nation’s main telecoms network, while clashing egos helped sink the Mediaset deal.
Creating a Netflix competitor with true pan-European scale would take years, even with dealmaking. It would be further complicated by rules that aim to ensure media plurality and stiff regulatory pushback.
In the bloc, progress remains slow and piecemeal: Mediaset owns 12 percent of ProSiebenSat.1 Media SE, Germany’s biggest private broadcaster, and is merging its Italian and Spanish businesses in a move that is seen as a precursor to more dealmaking.
In France, RTL Group SA and Bouygues SA plan to merge their local ad-funded TV stations.
However, as Netflix churns out more European shows to accelerate growth outside its home market, those rival efforts increasingly appear too little, too late.
Analysts expect the US company to generate US$5.8 billion in free cash flow in 2024, more than twice as much as ITV, RTL and Mediaset combined. It is getting harder to see how more deals could help Europe compete effectively with the inexorable rise of the streaming giants.
Alex Webb is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Europe’s technology, media and communications industries. He previously covered Apple and other technology companies for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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