Cablevision Systems Corp. has finally spun off the bulk of its programming assets as AMC Networks and now the guessing game is starting as to who might gobble it up.
Besides the AMC channel, home to the dramas "Mad Men," "Breaking Bad," "The Walking Dead" and "The Killing," the newly public AMC Networks is also parent of WE, a network that caters to women with a heavy load of reality fare, as well as IFC and Sundance, two smaller channels that primarily offer independent movies.
AMC is the crown jewel of the bunch. Once home to old movies, it now rivals HBO in terms of critically acclaimed shows. "Mad Men" is probably second only to "The Sopranos" in the amount of ink spilled by columnists, critics and bloggers obsessing over every moment of the show.
Shares of AMC Networks have performed below the expectations of some analysts since Cablevision distributed them to its shareholders on June 30, when they closed at $43.50 in "when issued" trading. Late in Monday's trading session, the stock was going for $37.60, down 94 cents, or 2.4%, since Friday's close. At that price, the company's market cap is almost $3 billion.
Among the usual suspects that come to mind when cable networks come on the market, Time Warner, parent of Turner Broadcasting's TBS and TNT; News Corp., home of FX, Comcast, owner of USA, Bravo and Syfy; and Disney, whose holdings include ABC Family and Disney Channel; have all been mentioned as potential suitors. Another name that will surface sooner or later is Viacom, parent of MTV, VH1, Comedy Central and Nickelodeon.
All of those companies, however, already have significant cable programming holdings and it is unclear whether AMC Networks really fits into their respective strategies.
Disney in particular tends to steer clear of niche networks in favor of general entertainment and sports programming. News Corp. has FX and Fox News driving their cable business as well as their own sports channels. Comcast might be wary of gobbling up even more programming after enduring a lengthy and challenging review process of its purchase of NBCUniversal. Time Warner, like Disney, usually focuses on mainstream channels.
Viacom does have more niche-type networks and might see some advantages to adding AMC Networks to its portfolio. The other big cable network operators -- Discovery Communications and Scripps Interactive -- are not experienced in operating networks that do more than program reality.
One company that seldom gets mentioned as a potential buyer of AMC is CBS. A case could be made that for CBS adding a few basic cable networks would be a good move.
CBS currently has only a couple of cable properties -- pay-TV channel Showtime and CBS Sports Networks, a small sports channel that focuses primarily on college athletics. Although Showtime has done a nice job of turning itself around and becoming a player in the original programming game, it still trails HBO in terms of revenue.
Adding an established basic cable network like AMC would also give CBS more leverage with cable and satellite operators it wants to pay top dollar to carry its television stations. In addition, it would give CBS more outlets for its content. Furthermore, most of its holdings are in broadcast TV and radio -- businesses that have only one revenue stream. The dual revenue stream that cable networks have -- subscriber fees and advertising -- would also help CBS weather tough economic times.
A real long shot buyer could be Time Warner Cable. Once part of Time Warner, it was spun off because Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes decided being a pure play content company was the way to go. Time Warner Cable has also made moves recently indicating it too believes in the power of content. In Los Angeles, it struck a big deal to land the TV rights to the Los Angeles Lakers, which it will use to start a cable sports network.
Admittedly, it's a big jump from running some regional sports channels to operating entertainment networks, but the brass at Time Warner Cable has said it sees owning content as a way to control its own economic destiny.
Most analysts don't expect a sale of AMC Networks to happen for at least a year if not two. Don't be surprised if the usual suspects take a pass and a surprise buyer emerges.
-- Joe Flint
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Photos: Top: Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Pare) with youngest son Gene Draper in an episode of "Mad Men." Credit: AMC. Right: Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) in AMC's "The Walking Dead." Credit: AMC.