For media companies, the story of the moment and possibly of the 2020s as a whole is the pursuit of subscriptions and other forms of recurring revenue. Whether they are in news, entertainment, or gaming, media companies are building or expanding these annuity businesses.
Consumers themselves want to manage their media consumption more actively, leading to the drip-by-drip demise of the cable bundle and to the growth of select services. Media companies’ desire for an ongoing, paying relationship with their audience is the dominant force now shaping the industry. In terms of value creation, media finished fourth out of 33 industries, with a median annual TSR of 16% over the past five years (2015 to 2019). Most of the top ten value creators in media derive a significant share of revenue from subscriptions and other recurring sources. (See Exhibit 1.) Notably, subscriptions are nearly the sole source of revenue for Netflix, the number-two overall media value creator and the number-one large-cap media value creator, with a five-year average annual TSR of 46%.
Alphabet, Facebook, and, increasingly, Amazon are by far the leading players in the digital ad market. Other media companies often find that it’s easier to double down on subscriptions than compete against the digital giants for advertising dollars. In absolute value creation, Alphabet and Facebook continue to be the industry’s workhorses. Together they generated nearly $900 billion in value during the period from 2015 to 2019, one-half of the industry’s total. (See Exhibit 2.)
As 2019 came to a close, Walt Disney, the number-five value creator in absolute terms, launched its long-awaited subscription and streaming service. Disney+ generated 10 million subscribers on its first day and nearly 29 million by early February 2020. At $7 a month, Disney+ costs less than Netflix’s basic service and offers a library of must-see family entertainment. Although it has a long way to go to catch Netflix, which has nearly 170 million subscribers, Disney+ has a good chance to become one of a handful of core entertainment packages that consumers purchase.
Another company of interest is the New York Times, which generated an annualized TSR exceeding 20%, comparable to the figures for Alphabet and Facebook. By the end of 2019, the publisher, which is more than 150 years old, had attracted 5.2 million subscriptions and had increased its total number of digital-only subscriptions by 1 million in just a year. Although the New York Times did not earn a spot in the top ten among media value creators, it offers strong evidence that print media transformation is possible in the digital age. Wolters Kluwer, a global professional information provider, is another old-line media company that generated in excess of 20% annualized TSR, largely on the strength of recurring revenue.
Although large companies are generating the most absolute value, smaller companies dominate the top-ten list on the strength of their high performance against relatively small revenue bases. Many of these small companies are fireflies that come into the media sphere only to quickly vanish. But a few endure, and their endurance suggests that these companies may be worthy of attention. For example, the number-one media value creator a decade ago (during the period from 2005 to 2009) was Tencent, then one-tenth the size it is today, with a 106% annualized return. While its annual TSR has since moderated to a still strong 30.5%, making it number seven among media companies, Tencent remains the number-two value creator in media in absolute terms. Its performance foreshadowed the arrival of the internet in China, one of the biggest business—and media—stories of the 2010s.
Tencent is the largest media company that has a strong presence in the fast-growing gaming media segment. It owns a 40% stake in Epic Games, the publisher of Fortnite, and has positions in many other makers of popular games. Five gaming companies, including the number-one media value creator CD Projekt of Poland, rank in the top ten, and the results mark the third year in a row for Take-Two Interactive, NetEase, and Ubisoft on the list. Important as it is now, mobile gaming will become even more critical for these companies in the next decade. (See Exhibit 3.)
Intriguingly, gamers are reluctant subscribers but habitual users. Many gaming companies have built or are building a subscription business. More fundamentally, they trade on the habitual use and ongoing purchases of their core customers. For example, gamers often make in-game purchases that don’t technically count as subscriptions but are effectively cousins to subscriptions. Collectively, subscriptions and in-game purchases already make up 14% of gaming revenue. These companies’ continued relevance depends on moving beyond hits to recurrence.
WWE, the sponsor of televised and live pro wrestling, climbed two spots to become the number-three media value creator with a 42% annualized TSR, an achievement strongly supported by its transition to a subscription business.
The subscription business—or any repeat business for a nonessential product or service—requires companies to offer consistent value in order to convert visitors into paying customers. It is costly to find and make offers to potential subscribers, and turning promotional offers into profitable revenue is a high-stakes effort. Even the best in the business struggle in an increasingly crowded market. (See Exhibit 4.) In the second quarter of 2019, for example, Netflix lost US subscribers for the first time.
In media, a subscription business is also a content business. News, entertainment, and gaming companies alike need to continually create, refresh, and buy content that will keep their audiences coming back for more. Netflix has increased its programming budget, which hit $15 billion in 2019, by 34% annually since 2015. Demand for content also contributes to some of the industry’s dealmaking, such as AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner and Walt Disney Co.’s purchase of 20th Century Fox.
As the cable bundle disappears, consumers will be able to choose from among an expanding galaxy of video services. About 80% of US households already pay for a streaming service. The great unknown is how many subscriptions households will be willing to pay for. In the US, a recent BCG survey showed that the average number of subscriptions in streaming households is currently 3.2.
Even when they offer strong content, companies need to craft the right offer at the right price to the right consumer. Contrary to conventional wisdom, younger generations of consumers are willing to pay for content and even print subscriptions—but they do not seek them out. Rather, our research suggests that media companies must reach out to them with a deal. In contrast, older consumers are more likely to seek subscription offers based on convenience.
For traditional media companies, the industry may not feel as if it were the number-four industry among top value creators. The past five years have wrenched operating models and tested management resolve. The next five years will do more of the same. Nevertheless, levels of media consumption, fascination with media, and media creation have never been higher or more intense. It’s a dynamic industry that punishes or rewards based on performance. The goal of achieving top-quartile TSR performance must drive any media company that seeks to remain relevant.
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