For the past few months, I’ve been seeking alternative ways to quantify the value of Social Media through studying the financial statements of publicly traded media companies. I found something interesting while looking at the FY2009 balance sheet of Media General, Inc. One of its line items, FCC licenses and other intangibles – net, lost 66% of its value in just two years! That’s $426 million! Gone! But where did it go?
Here’s how the item is described in the report:
FCC broadcast licenses are granted for maximum terms of eight years and are subject to renewal upon application to the FCC. The terms of several of the Company’s FCC licenses have expired, however the licenses remain in effect until action on the renewal applications has been completed. The Company filed all of its applications for renewal in a timely manner prior to the applicable expiration dates and expects its applications will be approved as the FCC works through its backlog. The Company’s network affiliation agreement intangible assets are due for renewal in a weighted-average period of three years. The Company currently expects that it will renew each network affiliation agreement prior to its expiration date. Costs associated with renewing or extending intangible assets are insignificant and are expensed as incurred.
Let’s think about this for a minute. Media General is a company that owns 18 television stations, 21 daily newspapers, and publishes over 200 specialty publications. It’s broadcast business unit is required to purchase licenses from the Federal Communications Commission in order to transmit programming. FCC licenses are scarce resources, meaning that if Media General owns one, its competitors can’t, creating a competitive advantage that Media General has assigned a real financial value to through its balance sheet.
Compare and contrast Media General’s broadcast business with those of us who publish content online. We have no such restrictions. We don’t need to purchase FCC licenses and therefore are not subject to their trappings, such language restrictions, geographic limitations, public service announcements, and bidding wars that translate into hefty operating costs. Add the cost of broadcast equipment and radio towers, and we, the digital content producers, have a huge competitive advantage over traditional broadcast companies just by comparing our respective distribution costs.
Historically, traditional media companies have made their money by investing in two things: building their audiences and owning the distribution channels to those audiences. In the past, the combined value of these pieces was large enough to sustain a profit through renting access to them through advertising. Unfortunately, the value of today’s broadcast assets may have dropped to a point where the rent (advertising) won’t cover the mortgage (distribution costs) anymore.
And lastly, let’s revisit the question asked earlier: “Where did that $426 million go?” Did it just vaporize into thin air? Maybe not. I contend that its value was absorbed into the digital distribution channel, where it sits, waiting for smart companies to take advantage of it…companies that believe that Audience is an Asset.