First Presidential Debate Broadcast, Cable TV Viewership Down From 2016 in Early Ratings

TV viewers apparently tuned out quickly during the first presidential debate Sept. 29, with the four major broadcasters reporting a 35% decline in viewers who watched incumbent President Donald Trump and Democrat nominee Joe Biden hurl nasty barbs and allegations against the other, according to new data from Nielsen.

First reported by The Hollywood Reporter, 29 million people collectively watched the debate from Cleveland, Ohio, across NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox. Separate reports claimed 27.3 million and 22.8 million, respectively, watched the debate with ABC the winner grabbing 10.3 million viewers. Viewership from pay-TV channels such as MSNBC (6.9 million), CNN (7.9 million) and Fox News — the latter with 17 million — pushed total viewership upwards of 65 million.

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That still trailed the first debate in 2016 between Democrat Hillary Clinton and GOP nominee Donald Trump, where a record 45 million watched on broadcast networks. The tally skyrocketed to 84 million after including cable, satellite and telecom viewers.

TikTok Owner Picks Oracle as ‘Trusted Tech Partner,’ Rejects Microsoft/Walmart Bid

ByteDance, the Chinese owner of social media video app TikTok, has reportedly selected Oracle Corp. to acquire its U.S. operations as a “trusted tech partner.” The deal, which must be approved by U.S. and Chinese regulators, amounts to a high-priced partnership rather than outright asset sale, according to media reports.

Beijing-based ByteDance had previously rejected a joint offer by Microsoft and Walmart, Microsoft disclosed in a Sept. 13 blog post. The amount of the software and retail giants’ bid has not been disclosed. The offer by Oracle reportedly hovers around $20 billion.

“ByteDance let us know today they would not be selling TikTok’s U.S. operations to Microsoft,” the software giant wrote. “We are confident our proposal would have been good for TikTok’s users, while protecting national security interests.”

TikTok has emerged into a social media phenomenon during the coronavirus pandemic generating upwards of 100 million users monthly watching both self-generated and third-party videos. It has also come into the crosshairs of the Trump Administration, which considers the app a national security threat, among other concerns. Trump has warned the government would ban the app in the U.S. by Sept. 15 unless it was sold to an American company.

Specifically, the National Security Agency and United States Cyber Command claim that Chinese control of TikTok’s computer code could influence distribution of propaganda and politically-motivated content to end-users.

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Microsoft said it would have made the required security, privacy and online safety adjustments to appease both federal and Chinese regulators. The Xbox manufacturer said it would have taken steps to prevent the spread of disinformation on the app — something it made clear to ByteDance.

“We look forward to seeing how the service evolves in these important areas,” Microsoft wrote.

Whether Oracle founder Larry Ellison’s personal relationship with Trump played a factor in the deal remains to be seen. Ellison has hosted a fundraiser for Trump, and Oracle CEO Safra Catz worked on Trump’s transition team in 2016.

Randall Stephenson’s Legacy: Backing Media in Partisan Era

Just hours after AT&T announced that its CEO Randall Stephenson would be stepping down in July after 13 years, President Donald Trump called Stephenson’s departure “great news!” in reference to WarnerMedia’s ownership of CNN, which the president often clashes with.

“Randall Stephenson, the CEO of heavily indebted AT&T, which owns and presides over Fake News @CNN, is leaving, or was forced out. Anyone who lets a garbage ‘network’ do and say the things that CNN does, should leave ASAP. Hopefully replacement will be much better!” Trump tweeted April 24 on social media.

Stephenson’s departure comes as AT&T grapples with shrinking pay-TV subscribers at DirecTV and AT&T U-verse, an online TV misfire with DirecTV Now (rebranded as AT&T TV), and $163 billion in debt — a figure that grew by $5.5 billion earlier this month following a third-party loan during the coronavirus pandemic.

Some have speculated the DOJ’s repeated attempts to nix AT&T’s $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner (and formation of WarnerMedia Entertainment) in 2016 stemmed from the president’s public animosity toward CNN.

“CNN’s job is not to be popular with the president,” Stephenson said at the time of the merger. “CNN’s job is really simple: It’s the job of all media: to hold people in power accountable.”

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Strong words from a CEO who often criticized government regulation, welcomed Trump’s corporate tax cut and was frequently accused of telling Wall Street that he preferred taking care of shareholders over consumers.

Indeed, in the first quarter (ended March 31), AT&T’s dividends paid for common shares totaling $3.7 billion (up 47% since 2017) and the company repurchased 142 million of its common shares for $4.7 billion.

Stephenson made headlines in 2017, when, as National Chair of the Boy Scouts of America, he criticized Trump’s address at the Boy Scouts of America’s annual Jamboree in West Virginia.

Trump had turned his speech into a partisan political rally, criticizing Obamacare, reiterating his 2016 election victory over Hillary Clinton, reportedly asking for greater loyalty from scouts and their parents and criticizing former President Barack Obama for not attending the Jamboree — a tradition among presidents since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937.

“Anyone knows his speeches get highly political — we anticipated that this could be the case,” Stephenson told The Associated Press. “Do I wish the president hadn’t gone there and hadn’t been political? Of course.”

Stephenson’s dogged defense of CNN continued despite some concern on Wall Street the global network founded by billionaire Ted Turner could undermine AT&T’s businesses going forward.

“This is one of those issues you just ask, ‘What is the right thing to do?'” Stephenson said at a Wall Street Journal forum as reported by The Dallas Morning News. “And then you do the right thing.”

Craig Moffett, analyst with MoffettNathanson, said Stephenson leaves behind a company that transformed from telecom operator to media conglomerate.

“But the jury is still out if the transformation is for better or worse,” Moffett told CNBC.

Movie Theaters Part of Trump’s Phase One ‘Guidelines for Opening Up America Again’

There could be light at the end of the tunnel for movie theaters and large venue events.

President Trump April 16 unveiled a three-part plan that would enable individual states and local government to re-open businesses, events and gatherings at their preference in accordance with following strict healthcare and social distancing mandates.

Notable in Phase One of Trump’s campaign-themed “Guidelines for Opening Up America Again” are movie theaters and sporting events, the latter reportedly a special interest to the president.

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The plan, which would require states to showcase downward trajectories of influenza-like illnesses and COVID-19 documented cases within a 14-day period, would then enable employers offering “large venues,” such as sit-down dining, movie theaters, sporting venues, and places of worship, the right to operate under strict physical distancing protocols.

Second and third phases of the White House plan, which like the first phase have no timelines, include schools re-opening, group gatherings of 50 or more people, non-essential travel and “moderate physical distancing” protocols.

Many states have suspended non-essential business and group gatherings through the end of April. Trump has said he would like to see parts of the country back to work beginning in May.

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“These steps will help state and local officials when reopening their economies, getting people back to work, and continuing to protect American lives,” the White House said in a statement.

Wedbush Securites media analyst Michael Pachter believes theater chains such as Cinemark, AMC and others can be profitable operating at just 20% to 30% capacity (due to social distancing) provided fixed costs such as rent and film costs are renegotiated. The analyst also believes exhibitors will lose more than $2 billion for the year following a return to reduced operations.

“This could [still] be a significant positive as the exhibitors’ ability to weather the closures depends to varying degrees on the flexibility of landlords,” Pachter wrote in a note.

The White House stressed that for states to authorize a return to business as usual (in a pandemic) would require across-the-board testing and contact tracing of COVID-19; adequate healthcare system capacity; and plans in place to safeguard the health and safety of workers in critical industries and those living and working in high-risk facilities (e.g., senior care facilities); protections for employees and users of mass transit; and advising citizens on protocols for social distancing and face coverings.

The guidelines are not insignificant considering there continues to be widespread shortages of COVID-19 tests, face masks and protective equipment for healthcare workers.

States would have to prove they could adequately monitor conditions and be able to “immediately take steps” to limit and mitigate any rebounds or virus outbreaks by restarting a phase or returning to an earlier phase, depending on severity of the situation.

Indeed, Trump’s plan to re-open America comes on the day domestic deaths attributed to coronavirus topped 32,000 and infections approached 700,000, according to new data from Johns Hopkins University. Nearly a third of the country’s virus-related deaths have happened in New York City.

The White House stressed that states and local officials might need to tailor the application of these criteria to local circumstances (e.g., metropolitan areas that have suffered severe COVID outbreaks, rural and suburban areas where outbreaks have not occurred or have been mild).

Additionally, the White House said state governors should work on a regional basis to satisfy the aforementioned criteria and to progress through the separate phases.

Ivanka Trump Named CES Keynote Speaker

Just before Christmas, Ivanka Trump, advisor to her father, President Donald Trump, was quietly named one of several keynote speakers at the upcoming CES Jan. 7-12, 2020, in Las Vegas.

Ms. Trump will take the keynote stage with Gary Shapiro, CEO of CTA, on Jan. 7 at 2 p.m. PT in the Venetian’s Palazzo Ballroom. They will discuss employer-led strategies to reskill workers, create apprenticeships and develop K-12 STEM education programs.

Ivanka Trump

“CES has consistently proven to be one of the most influential technology events in the world and I am excited to join this year for a substantive discussion on the how the government is working with private sector leaders to ensure American students and workers are equipped to thrive in the modern, digital economy,” Trump said in a statement.

In her White House role, Trump reportedly focuses on the economic empowerment of women and their families, skills-training and workforce development. Her work includes serving as co-chair of the National Council for the American Worker with U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, which helps shape administration efforts to develop a competitive workforce for the future, according to a PR statement.

“As a business leader and entrepreneur, Ivanka Trump is an advocate for creating family-sustaining jobs through workforce development, education and skills training,” said Shapiro.

Trump joins other CES keynote speakers, including Samsung CEO of Consumer Electronics Division Hyun-Suk Kim; Daimler Chairman Ola Källenius; Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian; NBC Universal Chairman of Advertising and Partnerships Linda Yaccarino, Quibi CEO Meg Whitman and founder Jeffrey Katzenberg, Salesforce Chairman and co-CEO Marc Benioff and Unilever CEO Alan Jope.

Befitting her father’s tumultuous presidency, Ivanka has been criticized for myriad — often partisan issues — not the least of which is her limited tech background.

“It would be better if the background of the keynote speaker actually fit the industry it is serving and inspirational rather than talking heads and political,” Cindy Chin, CEO of the consultancy CLC Advisors, told The Guardian. 

Regardless, Shapiro said Trump was more than welcome at the world’s largest consumer electronics show to share “her vision for technology’s role in creating and enabling the workforce of the future.”

Record Online Sales Drive 2019 Winter Holiday Retail Results Up 3.4%

With a six-days-shorter winter holiday period this year compared to 2018, retailers pushed earlier discount pricing in stores and online, which resulted in record e-commerce sales and a 3.4% increase in overall consumer spending (excluding autos), according to new data from Mastercard.

Online transactions increased nearly 19% from a year ago and accounted for nearly 15% of overall sales for the period from Nov. 1 through Dec. 24.

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“E-commerce sales hit a record high this year with more people doing their holiday shopping online,” Steve Sadove, senior advisor for Mastercard and former CEO of Saks, said in a statement. “Due to a later-than-usual Thanksgiving holiday, we saw retailers offering omnichannel sales earlier in the season, meeting consumers’ demand for the best deals across all channels and devices.”

Department stores saw overall sales decline 1.8% and online sales growth of 6.9%, emphasizing the importance of omnichannel offerings. Electronics and appliances were up 4.6%, while the home furniture and furnishings category grew 1.3%.

E-commerce continues to drive retail, accounting for 15.4% of Black Friday (Nov. 28) and 24.5% of Cyber Monday (Dec. 1) consumer spending, respectively.

Top online retailers included Walmart, Amazon and Target — all drivers of packaged-media (including DVD/Blu-ray Disc) sales.

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AT&T Reportedly Considering Spinning Off DirecTV or Merging Unit With Dish Network

Facing mounting mergers-and-acquisition debt, criticism from an activist investor and changing consumer habits toward pay-TV, AT&T is reportedly considering spinning off its DirecTV subsidiary or combining it with competitor Dish Network.

The Wall Street Journal, citing sources familiar with the situation, said CEO Randall Stephenson is exploring the option despite telling an investor event this week he still the supports the satellite TV business AT&T acquired in 2015 for $49 billion.

While nothing could come of the situation, Dish co-founder/CEO Charles Ergen Sept. 17 told the same investor group he welcomes merging the two satellite providers. Ergen tried pursuing DirecTV in 2014, but lost out to AT&T.

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Indeed, with 12 million subscribers — largely buttressed by standalone online TV service Sling TV — Dish would benefit from consolidation. AT&T has projected it would lose more than 1.4 million satellite subs in 2019, including rebranded DirecTV Now (AT&T TV) online subs.

However, when the former parents of Dish and DirecTV considered merging in 2001, federal regulators quashed the idea on antitrust issues.

The Trump Administration is still licking it wounds from a failed attempt to block AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner — a move some observers contend was largely based on politics involving the president’s dislike of Time Warner subsidiary CNN.

How that would impact a Dish/DirecTV combination is anyone’s guess.

“From a regulatory perspective, it hasn’t been successful and I don’t know that there is any change in that regulatory perspective,” AT&T CFO John Stephens said recently. “I understand the industrial logic, but quite frankly it’s been tried and has been rejected.”

Trump Administration Pledges to Veto Net Neutrality Bill

As expected, White House officials April 8 said they would recommend President Donald Trump veto House Democrats’ efforts to revive net neutrality guidelines enacted in 2015 by the Federal Communications Commission under President Obama.

The current FCC, under Trump-appointed chairman Ajit Pai, reversed the guidelines, favoring so-called “light touch” regulation.

Following the 2018 midterm elections, Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) introduced H.R. #1644 (Save the Internet) that would reinstate net neutrality classifying the Internet as a utility under Title II of the Telecommunications Act of 1934.

The bill, which has 197 co-sponsors, seeks to stop Internet service providers from enacting speed lanes for higher-paying Web traffic and throttling third-party competitive services.

The legislation is up for possible vote in the Democrat-control House as early as April 9. If passed, it would be reconciled in the Senate and then sent to Trump for his signature or veto.

The White House (and many Republicans) argue that the current FCC last year sought to “restore Internet freedom” by adopting so-called “light-touch” regulation that it said enabled the Internet and entrepreneurs to “thrive” for nearly two decades.

In a tweet, the Office of Management and Budget said that since the FCC reversed its position on net neutrality, the United States has risen to sixth from 13th in global fixed broadband download speeds.

It said ongoing rollout of fiber technology benefited from a change in the law, underscored by an increase in capital investment by $2.3 billion.

“H.R. 1644 would undermine this success by repealing the FCC’s current rule,” the OMB tweeted. “If H.R. 1644 were presented to the President, his advisors would recommend that he veto it.”

 

 

‘Ivana Trump’s For Love Alone’ Coming on DVD in April From Mill Creek

Ivana Trump’s For Love Alone, based on the Donald Trump former spouse’s bestseller about a foreign beauty who marries and then divorces a business tycoon, is coming to DVD (plus digital) in April from Mill Creek Entertainment.

From Ivana Trump’s own writings, this is the story of a young Czechoslovakian beauty and skiing prodigy who rose from humble origins in communist Eastern Europe to reign as queen of the international jet set — not unlike Ivana’s Trump’s own rise to fame after her marriage to Donald Trump. It chronicles Katrinka’s marriage to American business tycoon “Adam Graham” and her bitter subsequent divorce.

Nexstar Media Group Acquires Tribune Media Company for $6.4 Billion

Nexstar Media Group Dec. 3 announced it has entered into a definitive merger agreement with Tribune Media Company to acquire all outstanding shares of Tribune Media in a cash deal valued at $6.4 billion, including the assumption of Tribune Media’s outstanding ($2.3 billion) debt.

The transaction makes Irving, Texas-based Nexstar the largest local TV station owner in the country, including 216 stations in 118 markets – reaching approximately 39% of U.S. television households. Tribune also owns 31% stake in Food Network.

The combined entity will be one of the nation’s leading providers of local news, entertainment, sports, lifestyle and network programming through its broadcast and digital media platforms with annual revenue of approximately $4.6 billion.

Notable Tribune stations include WGN America in Chicago and KTLA in Los Angeles. WGN became one of the first local broadcasters to ink production deals for original (now cancelled) series, including “Salem” from 20thCentury Fox, “Manhattan” (Lionsgate), and “Underground” (Sony Pictures), among others.

The deal is expected to close by the third-quarter next year following regulatory approvals.

“Nexstar has long viewed the acquisition of Tribune Media as a strategically, financially and operationally compelling opportunity that brings immediate value to shareholders of both companies,” Perry Sook, CEO of Nexstar, said in a statement.

Sook said the transaction offers synergies ($160 million in the first year) related to the enhanced scale of the combined broadcast and digital media operations and increases the company’s audience reach by about 50%.

The deal follows the scuttled $3.9 billion merger attempt between Tribune and Sinclair Broadcasting Group, which imploded following allegations the politically conservative Sinclair would have positioned Tribune stations as far-right partisan mouthpieces.

The new transaction reflects a 15.5% premium for Tribune Media shareholders and a 45% premium to Tribune’s closing price on July 16, the day FCC Ajit Pai issued a statement regarding his intention to hold a hearing on the Sinclair offer.

The Nexstar/Tribune deal faces its own regulatory hurdles under the current FCC and Department of Justice, which together under the direction of the Trump Administration, have taken stronger approaches toward media mergers as seen in the DOJ’s ongoing appeal of the AT&T/Time Warner pact.

Indeed, Nexstar said it intends to divest certain TV stations necessary to comply with regulatory ownership limits and may also divest other assets it deems to be non-core.