Fix It Again, Tony
Bankruptcy is the new black. Everyone's doing it—Tribune, Chrysler, Charter, airlines, banks, the Tropicana, Donald Trump, the neighbor, the dog, the lemonade stand. General Motors any minute now—trading on this particular day for a dollar, like knock-off watches from the lining of a trench coat.
Pardon the bathos. We all know that watching the Big Three spiral has been a ghastly burlesque, starting with the delusional chief executives popping down to D.C. on their private jets to whine for taxpayer dollars. Now Fiat owns Chrysler along with its $4.5 billion in bail-out funds. Sweet.
There was a time when all gearheads pronounced "Fiat" with a snort, Now Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne is the archangel of Detroit. Whether or not he'll be likewise for the broadcast industry remains to be seen. Fiat itself is not flush with cash. It did not after all "buy" Chrysler, but essentially was paid to take it over. And car company marriages do not have a particularly successful history.
Fiat is already picking off dealerships, a primary source of revenue for local TV stations. All dealerships spent $801 million on local TV ads last year, ranking fourth among all categories for spot buys in the top 100 TV markets. GM is said to be taking about 40 percent of its 6,200 dealerships. GM dealers alone accounted for about $264 million in spot spending.
Television's dependence on the auto industry is ending by default, and broadcasters know it. Automotive spending caved 20 percent last year, 30 percent in 4Q and it's not letting up. The following phrase was a mantra in first-quarter reports:
"At this time it is unclear as to how the bankruptcy filing by Chrysler will, or a possible bankruptcy filing by General Motors Corp. would, affect our revenue for the second quarter."
Political will have disappeared compared to last year as well, and there are no Olympics. Retransmission alone is growing, but it comprises single-percentage portions of revenues. It won't replace Detroit.
The upside? Yes, one always seeks an upside, one does. Stocks in general seemed to find the basement March 10. That Ford can borrow means money is moving. Bankruptcy is lender negotiation in extremis. Beer and soda are making money. Clearly the shake-out's not over, but whoever is left standing will be solid.
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