For many, Viacom (NASDAQ:VIAB) stock has been a disappointment over the past year:
Should we expect more losses in the year ahead? I'm not so sure. And yet if the chart above shows anything, it's that investors prefer big-name franchise owners such as Disney (NYSE:DIS) and Time Warner (NYSE:TWX.DL). Viacom is still in the early stages of developing new properties to accompany Transformers.
Giant robot seeks friend
The company's partnership with Hasbro has been especially lucrative. Over four movies, Paramount Pictures' Transformers franchise has earned more than $3.7 billion at the worldwide box office -- just over $750 million on average -- and another $682.9 million in home video sales before accounting for Transformers: Age of Extinction.
By contrast, Disney's Marvel Studios has managed to produce $703 million in average worldwide box office grosses over 10 movies. Giant robots (for now) are beating superheroes, which may explain why Paramount wants as much of director Michael Bay's time as it can get.
In July, the studio added three years to an existing agreement that gives Paramount first crack at funding Bay's newest projects. That includes a June 2016 follow-up to this summer's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which Bay helped shepherd through his production company, Platinum Dunes. Mikey, Leo, Raph, and Donny -- as the talking turtles call themselves -- have taken in $342.1 million worldwide as of this writing.
"With an ever-growing, worldwide fan base, Michael is truly one of the most inspired and beloved filmmakers of our time," said Brad Grey, Paramount chairman and CEO, in announcing the deal (via The Wrap). "We take great pride in the fact that Michael is part of the Paramount family and we look forward to growing our productive and successful partnership."
A howler of a franchise
While Paramount is a meaningful contributor to Viacom's revenue, Media Networks is what produces profits. Cable operations such as MTV and Nickelodeon account for two-thirds of revenue and nearly all of the company's operating income.
TV franchises deserve much of the credit, and at least one is heading for a bigger stage. In February, the animated inhabitants of Bikini Bottom will make their big-screen debut in SpongeBob: Sponge Out of Water, adding to a franchise that has generated at least $8 billion merchandising revenue over its 15 years on Nickelodeon.
Over at MTV, Teen Wolf has proven to be a durable performer and a favorite among the crowd at San Diego Comic-Con. Viewership tends to run between 1.5 and 2.5 million per episode. Season four's finale drew 1.54 million viewers on Sept. 8, leading the network to order 20 more episodes for season five.
While that might not sound like much, on last month's earnings call, Viacom chief Philippe Dauman explained the long-tail nature of this sort of cable programming:
Across Viacom's networks, total video consumption of our full episode programming has grown year-over-year, with a number of our series seeing dramatic lift when you factor in time-shifted and on-demand viewing. Take MTV's Teen Wolf for example, a show with a very tech-savvy audience, an entire online and social media culture onto itself. Live-plus-same-day ratings for the just-completed cycle of Teen Wolf were up 18% among all viewers over the show's debut season in 2011. But when you factor in all measured screens, the total audience of the show is up 38% over the same time frame.
Viacom stock could pay off over the long term
How soon we'll see Viacom's various franchise bets pay off isn't clear. In the meantime, investors can take heart knowing that the stock is cheap compared to peers. S&P Capital IQ has Viacom trading for 14.2 times trailing earnings and just 12.6 times estimated profits, versus 16.1 and 18.1, respectively, for Warner and 21.3 and 19.7, respectively, for Disney. Successful franchise bets could help to close the gap, delivering huge returns to current shareholders in the process.