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Cable Strikes Back

Most people viewed the recent contentious negotiations between Walt Disney and Charter Communications like a prize fight: two combatants, one winner.

I see it differently. Viewed through the lens of Michael Porter’s competitive forces, which we use at Harding Loevner to analyze industry dynamics, the dispute was a clear example of a change in the bargaining power of buyers amid the changing economics of streaming services.

Disney and Charter clashed over a new cable agreement. Charter complained about the high fees it paid for ESPN, FX, and other Disney channels while Disney was funneling premium content to its own Disney+ streaming service. Eventually, Disney’s channels disappeared from Charter’s Spectrum TV service, and Spectrum stood firm: it was prepared to give up Disney’s networks, seemingly forever.

It didn’t come to that, though, and the terms of the agreement don’t sound monumental: Disney+ will now be an option for Charter subscribers for an additional fee. Disney gets new eyeballs, but hands over a chunk of its fees to Charter, which had faced a seemingly inevitable revenue decline from its cable business due to the rise of streaming. The agreement offers a reprieve from that.

However, the terms of the resolution show that Disney as a supplier had far less bargaining power with its customer than it had assumed. It was forced to make material concessions that will affect its transition to a full-streaming model. Make no mistake, Disney backed down, and that loss is going to hurt its bottom line in the long run. Moreover, if the world’s largest entertainment company couldn’t use its muscle to get what it wants, then all the other networks are going to face the same dilemma when their carriage agreements come up for renewal. Disney’s capitulation could signal a major shift in the entertainment industry.

For decades, “content is king” was the mantra of the media industry. While cable companies were the primary distributor of content made by studios, the ultimate pricing power was always in the hands of the studios, especially studios like Disney that owned must-see kids, sports, and movie content. A cable provider could not attract subscribers without these must-have channels. As a result, even though there would be heated negotiations over fees, ultimately cable providers would yield to the studios’ demands.

The studios’ leverage has been weakened by the very thing they are focused on: streaming. Streaming subscribers often cherry pick services, signing up for a short time if there’s a must-see program and then canceling. For Disney and the others, there is a fundamental mismatch between costs and revenue duration. Streaming platforms need a constant flow of new programming to limit subscriber churn, but that pushes operating costs up into the billions. Not all of them can afford it.

It’s possible Charter perceived this, or just felt like it had nothing to lose. It was willing to take a loss of subscribers upfront by terminating its Disney arrangement rather than bleed subscribers over a number of years if it didn’t challenge Disney, given either course would likely lead to the same terminal point, just in different time frames. Charter’s hard stand showed the flaw in the Disney plan.

The content king may not be dead but it definitely seems like he holds less power.

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Ozempic and the Substitution Trade

The diabetes drug Ozempic has made headlines recently as the secret behind several slimmed-down stars of the Bravo network’s “Real Housewives” franchise. Tabloid fodder doesn’t usually matter to investors, but the story of Ozempic is one worth reading.

The twist is that Ozempic, a trade name for semaglutide, is a diabetes drug, not an obesity drug. Semaglutide is however effective in inducing weight loss; its creator Novo Nordisk markets a separate version called Wegovy specifically for obesity. Wegovy became so popular there were shortages of it, so doctors began prescribing Ozempic “off label” for a condition other than its intended use. That popularity fueled Novo Nordisk shares and this month it pushed past LVMH as Europe’s most valuable company.

Growth Opportunities from Electrification

Portfolio manager Scott Crawshaw highlights several companies in our Emerging Markets portfolio that are poised to benefit from increasing electrical power demand.

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Meta Accelerates Its AI Game

Meta has been quieter about its artificial-intelligence-focused endeavors this year than some of its big-tech peers like Microsoft and NVIDIA, but it expects just as massive a transformation of its business from the much-hyped technology.

In its second-quarter earnings conference call, Meta founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg detailed how AI permeates the company. For example, nearly all of Meta’s advertisers now use at least one AI-based product, allowing them, for instance, to personalize and customize ads. He also touted an increase of 7% in time spent on Facebook after launching AI-recommended content from accounts that users don’t follow.

Now the company plans an aggressive push of its own version of generative AI, the kinds of large language models that have gotten so much attention lately. In July, the company released an open-source—i.e., free for even commercial use—generative AI platform called Llama 2, which Meta hopes will emerge as a competitor to OpenAI’s GPT-4. Meta is betting its platform will unleash users’ creative potential and result in a flood of content. If that occurs, Meta’s powerful algorithms for matching content with users—4 billion of them across all of its platforms—will become indispensable as a content-discovery tool with a rich set of monetization options from advertising to ecommerce to subscriptions.