Legacy media companies enter dark times as failures mount and Netflix rises again

Bob Iger, CEO of The Walt Disney Company, left; David Zaslav, CEO and president of Warner Bros. Discovery, center; and Bob Bakish, president and CEO of Paramount Global.
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Companies and industries have ups and downs. The legacy media industry is in a valley.

The first half of 2023 has been a colossal disappointment for media executives who wanted this year to be a rebound from a terrible 2022, when a slowdown in streaming subscribers cut valuations for Netflix, Disney, Warner Bros. Discovery and Paramount Global roughly in half.

Instead, investors have once again become excited by Netflix’s future prospects as it’s cracked down on password sharing, potentially leading to tens of millions of new signups. Netflix shares have surged the past five months, outpacing the S&P 500.

Meanwhile, the legacy players can’t get out of their own way.

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Netflix vs the S&P 500 over the past five months.

“When it rains it pours,” said LightShed media analyst Rich Greenfield. “It just keeps getting worse.”

It’s been a bumpy ride for Disney Chief Executive Officer Bob Iger since he returned to lead the company late last year. Disney recently finished laying off 7,000 employees. Chief Financial Officer Christine McCarthy stepped down last week. The company is pulling programming from its streaming services to save money. Its animation business is in a major rut, with its latest Pixar movie, “Elemental,” recording the lowest opening weekend gross for the studio since the original “Toy Story” premiered in 1995. Shares have struggled in the past five months.

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Disney vs. the S&P 500 over the past five months.

Warner Bros. Discovery is laying off more employees after cutting thousands of jobs last year as it tries to boost free cash flow. Chief Executive Officer David Zaslav threw his weight behind CNN CEO Chris Licht for a year, only to fire him this month after a series of internal errors with employees and external mistakes with programming.

Then there’s the company’s movie, cable and streaming businesses. DC Studios’ co-chief James Gunn and Zaslav both trumpeted “The Flash” as one of the greatest superhero movies ever made, but the film flamed out at the box office amid mediocre reviews. This week, Zaslav held an emergency call with directors Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson to convey his commitment to classic movies as he lays off employees at the cable network TCM. HBO Max is now Max, but that hasn’t stopped the service from removing programming for consumers.

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Warner Bros. Discovery vs. the S&P 500 over the past five months.

Paramount Global cut its dividend last quarter as streaming losses peak this year and a weak advertising market exacerbates a terminally ill cable network business. Wells Fargo released an analyst note Friday saying the bull case and the bear case for the company were the same: selling for parts. Warren Buffett, perhaps the most acclaimed investor in history, told CNBC that Paramount’s streaming offering “fundamentally is not that good of a business.”

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Paramount Global vs the S&P 500 over the past five months.

Fox agreed to pay Dominion Voting Systems $787 million to avoid a trial over knowingly spreading election fraud lies. In April, the company fired Tucker Carlson, arguably its biggest star, and has seen viewership precipitously drop ever since. Shares haven’t really fallen in the past five months, in large part because Fox sold most of its media and entertainment assets to Disney in 2019.

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Fox Corp. vs the S&P 500 over the past five months.

NBCUniversal has weathered the storm the best, shielded by its parent company, Comcast, which gets its revenue from cable and wireless assets. It’s also taken advantage of missteps from the aforementioned. MSNBC became the No. 1 cable news network this month for the first time in 120 weeks, dethroning Fox News amid coverage of former President Donald Trump’s federal indictment. Universal’s “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” is by far the biggest box office hit of the year, yet shares haven’t moved much.

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Comcast vs the S&P 500 over the past five months.

All of this is happening with an extended Hollywood writers’ strike going on in the background with no end in sight. The writers know the longer the strike lasts, the more pain will be inflicted on media companies, who will eventually run out of already-made scripted content. Zaslav recently gave a commencement address to Boston University and was drowned out by boos and chants of “pay your writers.”

This week may bring even more bad news. Film and TV actors are set to join writers on strike unless they reach a deal with Hollywood studios by Friday.

The beneficiary of Hollywood work shutdowns will likely be YouTube, TikTok, and Netflix, which continues to churn out international content that is unaffected by the strike, said Greenfield.

Legacy media may get a small reprieve if advertising jumps back as the 2024 U.S. presidential campaign heats up. But there’s still scant evidence investors will reward media companies for simply cutting costs. There’s currently no strong growth narrative for legacy media, and consolidation prospects are murky as regulators block media-adjacent deals such as Microsoft’s acquisition of Activision and Penguin Random House’s proposed purchase of Simon & Schuster.

The industry just wrapped up its annual advertising gala in Cannes, France. Legacy media executives still spent company dollars to make the trip to hang out on yachts and drink rosé. The backdrop was as beautiful as ever.

But the landscape is bleak.

Disclosure: Comcast owns NBCUniversal, which is the parent company of CNBC.

WATCH: WPP CEO Mark Read on the state of the advertising market, from Cannes Lions 2023

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