Fool on the Street: CBS

It's a tumultuous time for mass media. CBS (NYSE: CBS  ) may have parted ways with its former parent, media giant Viacom (NYSE: VIA  ) , but for the last several months, investors have been rather sweet on CBS stock, despite the challenges facing the company and its fellow media firms. What's the outlook for the company with an all-seeing eye for its logo? CBS President and CEO Les Moonves took on questions earlier this week at a Goldman Sachs conference.

Ouch! That smarts
There was quite a bit of sparring between Goldman Sachs analyst Anthony Noto and CBS's Moonves. At one point, Noto said, "I may not like the stock, but I love the competitiveness." And toward the beginning of the presentation, Moonves said, "We think you're being a little bit pessimistic about us, which you have been in the past."

Noto started the ball rolling pretty early, asking Moonves whether he thinks CBS can grow faster than the low single digits; Moonves answered in the affirmative. However, many of Noto's questions made me think that he's not quite convinced.

Given my surprise at Noto's tough talk, I did a quick check and noticed that Goldman Sachs initiated coverage on CBS in January of this year with an "underperform" rating. Although we here at the Fool rarely place much stock in analysts' ratings (here's a piece on the upside of downgrades), it seemed interesting, since "underperform" or "sell" ratings on stocks are fairly unusual. Apparently, the stock's climb over the last six months hasn't changed Noto's opinion too terribly much, given some of his tough questions.

Yesterday and today
Though media companies face many disruptive influences -- CBS's last quarter showed some trouble spots -- the company does have a legacy behind it. Noto did concede that CBS was the most-watched TV network, with an average audience 20% higher than its nearest competitor during the 2005-2006 season. It boasts the No. 1 drama and comedy, and nine out of the top 20 TV shows. This year, it will also have the much-coveted Super Bowl, as well as the addition of Katie Couric to its star power.

Of course, the major networks must be careful to address the big issues facing TV broadcasters these days. One, of course, is the increasing use of digital video recorders (DVRs) like those from TiVo (Nasdaq: TIVO  ) . Noto mentioned statistics showing that DVR users skip 80% of commercials. Moonves took exception to that piece of data, responding that CBS research implies that the percentage of skipped ads by DVR users is much lower.

DVRs aren't the only way viewers are time-shifting TV programming. The broadcast industry is increasingly noticing viewers' desire to access programming of all types through the Internet, and Moonves pointed out that the company has some form of distribution deals with Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) iTunes, Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) , and Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO  ) , for example. Meanwhile, Moonves pointed to several of the company's Internet properties, including SportsLine and CBSNews.com, as successful with users.

Of course, one question on many minds these days seems to be whether any big companies are going to snap up Facebook or YouTube in an attempt to gain ground with those sites' large, youthful user bases. Moonves said that while CBS does keep its eye out for acquisition opportunities -- the company's M&A department is "looking at 100 things at any time, right now" -- he also said that they're looking for the next big thing. (It stands to reason, on a fiscal basis, that CBS would take such a stance -- given companies' increasing tendency to pay megabucks for hot Internet properties, it's easy to see the temptation to overspend.) "Are we risk-averse?" Moonves said. "No. Are we smart about it? Yes."

Future shock
Although CBS has radio, publishing, and outdoor advertising segments, I chose to focus on its digital strategies here, because the shift in the way that people view content is one of the current market's most interesting and important challenges.Although CBS has been traditionally known as the "old fogey network" due to its older demographics (remember, 60 Minutes is one of its most enduring hits), it'll have to get with the program to grow the younger side of its audience, which is increasingly open to new ways to consume media.

I read the "Fool on the Street" my Foolish colleague Anders Bylund penned on Disney (NYSE: DIS  ) , and I agree with his conclusion that Disney "gets it." He explained that in Disney's presentation, the company acknowledged that piracy isn't just a shadowy fringe concern -- it's a real, legitimate form of competition, with increasing audiences turning to less-than-legal means to get high-quality, ad-free video content soon after broadcast. It sounds like Disney isn't hand-wringing, calling the lawyers, or sticking its head in the sand and ignoring the truth of the situation. Instead, it's trying to meet the challenge through innovative digital strategies that allow viewers legal ways to get content the way they want it.

In contrast, I can't help wondering whether CBS is still exhibiting some dinosaur-like tendencies, its recent interesting experiment with TiVo aside. Some of Moonves' responses in the call gave me a sense that CBS is a competent old-school media company, but that it might not quite understand the way distribution platforms and viewing habits are changing. Given the 13.5% increase in CBS's share price over the last six months, I wonder whether investors are adequately gauging the risks at hand -- risks that could become opportunities for CBS, with the right amount of innovation.

Take a look at some further Foolishness:

Disney, TiVo, and Yahoo! areMotley Fool Stock Advisorrecommendations.To find out more about the stocks that David and Tom Gardner have recommended to investors, click here for a 30-day free trial.

Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned. The Fool has an ironclad disclosure policy.


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