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The Query: featuring news and analysis on the media by Claire Atkinson

The NBC News Media Blog is here to keep you current on the media business. Check here every day for fresh news on the latest corporate battles, media mergers, the growth of paid content and big ad-revenue shifts.

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Tip us at: 201-731-2340. Or email tips at: Claire.Atkinson@nbcuni.com.

The Query

Netflix's story stumbles

If you believe there is a tech bubble waiting to burst, then you might be paying close attention to Netflix today. Wall Street is not in a good mood after the company added fewer subscribers than expected — the first time that's happened in five quarters.

The streaming giant, which picked up more Emmy nominations than HBO, is one of the market’s best performers. The stock story, largely reliant on collecting more subscribers, fell apart yesterday after it missed a growth forecast.

And as Mediapost’s Alex Weprin pointed out, the company doubled its marketing spend to $1 billion in the first six months.

Eric Schiffer, CEO of private equity firm Patriach, told Reuters: “Investors are devastated by Netflix’s Q2 projection that went down in dramatic flames. Now future projections are suspect and that decimates valuation.”

Rob Arnott, head of fund advisory firm Research Affiliates, told Bloomberg TV that Wall Street may have focused more on the allure rather than the fundamentals of the Netflix story. “They qualify as a bubble," he said.

CNBC noted on Tuesday that analysts are predicting that so-called FANG stocks (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google parent Alphabet) will appreciate just 5.4 percent in the next 12 months, while Netflix will add just 2 percent. Here’s the report. The average return was 64.5 percent this past six months.

News consumption on smartphones continues to grow

The smartphone continues to grow as a force in news consumption. 

A new report from the Pew Research Center found that almost six-in-ten Americans now often read the news on their smartphones — almost triple the amount that did in 2013. 

That growth is particularly impressive in comparison to newsreading on desktop and laptop computers, which is just about flat. 

Pew found that young people more often get news on their mobile devices, but that the growth has been fueled by an uptick in consumption from older people and people with lower incomes.

The charts below highlight the growth in mobile news readership as well as some of the splits between people who read news on mobile vs. desktop. 

Media coverage torches Trump over Helsinki

You know it's bad when both the U.S. and Russian media are declaring Vladimir Putin the winner.

Media from both countries generally gave the Russian president the win over U.S. President Donald Trump after the two met in Helsinki.

One of the biggest news outlets in Russia, Izvestia, headlined its story on the Helsinki summit: “Trump immediately capitulates: Why the world’s press gave victory to Putin." The website added that Trump had “fallen into a trap set by the Russian President Vladimir Putin,” according to Google Translate.

Tabloid newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic went in for the kill on Tuesday. In the U.K., the left-leaning Daily Mirror declared Trump, “Putin’s Poodle: Trump branded a traitor.”

The Daily News cover screamed “Open Treason,” and noted in its coverage that Trump calls stories he disagrees with “fake news” but appeared to buy Putin’s denials about Russia’s interference in the U.S. election without question.

The cover carries a political cartoon showing Trump holding hands with Putin on Fifth Avenue and aiming a gun at Uncle Sam, an allusion to Trump’s comment that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and get away with it.

The more right-leaning New York Post also criticized Trump with its headline — "See No Evil" — describing the summit as a bear hug to “wicked BFF Vlad.” Fox News, generally supportive of Trump, hosted a variety of voices that criticized the president.

One Finnish newspaper simply noted the score: Trump 0, Putin 1. CNN’s Jake Tapper tweeted the front page.

The Russians would no doubt agree, though RT, a Russian TV channel that had to register as a foreign agent in the US and has been banned from selling ads on Twitter, offered a softer take. An op-ed by  Irish journalist Bryan MacDonald published on the RT website declared the Helsinki summit something of a storm in a tea-cup.

“US outlets and pundits would have you believe Trump handed over the family silver to Moscow. Which is nonsense,” he wrote.

“In reality, hardly anything changed. Trump didn't recognize Crimea, threaten to walk away from NATO or withdraw from Syria.”

Fox News and Business voices pull no punches on Trump in Helsinki

Neil Cavuto on Fox Business called it “disgusting." Fox News' website ran an opinion piece with the headline, “Putin eats Trump’s lunch in shocking Helsinki summit.” Fox News anchor Bret Baier called it "almost surreal at points."

President Donald Trump's appearance alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday drew broad criticism from Republicans and Democrats. But even some of the notable faces of Fox's cable channels, which have generally reported favorably on the president throughout his first term, struggled to defend his actions on Monday.

Abby Huntsman, a Fox News anchor and co-host of “Fox & Friends Weekend” (and daughter of Jon Huntsman, the U.S. ambassador to Russia) tweeted: “No negotiation is worth throwing your own people and country under the bus.”

CORRECTION (July 16, 2018, 6:00 p.m.): An earlier version of this article misspelled the first name of a Fox News anchor. He is Bret Baier, not Brett.

Read more here.

Sinclair's attempt to create a local TV behemoth hits a roadblock

Sinclair’s attempt to create a local TV powerhouse just hit a roadblock.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai said on Monday that he has “serious concerns” about Sinclair's plan to merge with Tribune Media and will have the FCC vote on sending the deal to an administrative judge.

Pai focused on Sinclair’s plan to spin-off a handful of stations to parties that he said could remain under Sinclair’s control.

“The evidence we’ve received suggests that certain station divestitures that have been proposed to the FCC would allow Sinclair to control those stations in practice, even if not in name, in violation of the law," Pai said in a statement.

Read more here.

Former CEO of Billboard and The Hollywood reporter resigned amid sexual harassment investigation

The former CEO of Billboard and The Hollywood Reporter resigned amid an internal investigation into sexual harassment, according to the The Daily Beast.

John Amato left the company last week, and the company’s owner Valence Media said it was beginning an investigation about workplace practices at the publishing company.

The Daily Beast’s Maxwell Tani reported that Amato was ousted after employees came forward with harassment allegations against him. The story also notes other complaints from staff about interference with a story about Charlie Walk, a music industry executive and friend of Amato’s who was accused of sexual harassment.

A public relations firm that represents Billboard, Jonesworks, declined to comment. Another firm representing Billboard owner Valence Media and Amato’s lawyer, Joel Katz, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

About-face at Chequers

President Donald Trump appeared to describe the exclusive interview he gave to the Rupert Murdoch-owned The Sun newspaper as "fake news" at a joint news conference Friday with British Prime Minster Theresa May at her Chequers country residence.

The Sun's front-page interview, published Thursday, was timed for maximum embarassment for May and included fierce criticism by Trump of how she has negotiated Britain’s exit from the European Union, or Brexit, and praise for Boris Johnson, her recently departed foreign secretary and one of her chief political rivals, as a potentially "great prime minister."

May’s plan “will definitely affect trade with the United States, unfortunately in a negative way," Trump told The Sun, adding it "would probably end a major trade relationship with the United States.” He also noted: “I actually told Theresa May how to do it but she didn’t agree. She didn’t listen to me.”

At the joint news conference Friday, it was an entirely different side of Trump. BBC News political editor Laura Kuenssberg got the first question and wasted no time calling out the disconnect between The Sun interview and Trump's praise of May in advance of taking questions from reporters. "You seem, rather, to have changed your tune," Kuenssberg said. "Is this the behavior of a friend?" Here's the full exchange

Trump shot back, "I didn't criticize the prime minister,” adding that he had made lots of positive comments in the interview about May, too, and there was a tape to prove it. "It's called fake news," he said.  He also added that May could do what she wants with Europe and that "it's OK with me."

Trump delivered a stinging rebuke of CNN when its reporter Jim Acosta tried to ask a question. "CNN is fake news. I don't take questions from CNN,” Trump said before turning to Fox News. A CNN network insider noted that Trump had taken a question the day before from its White House reporter, Jeremy Diamond. 

NBC News also came in for arrows after White House correspondent Kristen Welker asked about Trump's comments on NATO. Trump described NBC News as “possibly worse than CNN.” NBC’s Ken Dilanian came to Welker’s defense with a tweet noting that she had asked a fact-based question. 

The president of the White House Correspondents' Association, Margaret Talev, issued a rare rebuke of the president on Twitter  on Friday and praised The Sun for releasing the full audio of the Trump interview. 

"In response to the president lashing out at NBC, CNN and The Sun: Asking smart, tough questions, whether in a presidential press conference or interview, is central to the role a free press plays  in a healthy republic," Talev said.

"Given that the president took a question from a CNN reporter in his NATO news conference just a day earlier, maybe he was letting off steam today rather than expressing an official stance toward a news organization's ability to report,  but saying a news organization isn't real doesn't change the facts and won't stop us from doing our jobs. We appreciate The Sun for posting the entire audio of their interview so that everyone can hear the president's remarks for themselves."

Kylie Jenner on track to be youngest self-made billionaire

Forbes has a jaw-dropping cover this month.

It has finally discovered who and what sells in print. While the kings of social media ponder their future in Sun Valley, Kylie Jenner has leveraged their platforms to establish a $900 million cosmetics business.

Kylie, 20, who is no stranger to selling, said thanks on Twitter and added the hashtag #kyliecosmetics.  She's on track to becoming the youngest self-made billionaire in history. Gulp.

Here's her line if you want to see what her business is all about. "Social media is an amazing platform," she tells the magazine. Kim Kardashian West is worth a conservative $350 million.  

What's so great about Sky?

If you've ever watched the poker movie "The Sting," starring Paul Newman, you'll be familiar with the intensity of the high stakes game being played by Comcast, the owner of NBCUniversal (parent company of NBC News) and Rupert Murdoch's 21st Century Fox.

Both are vying to acquire U.K. satellite TV service Sky. Fox, which already owns 39 percent of the company, is set to flip it to Disney as part of a wider sale of assets.

Fox just submitted a new, higher offer, and Comcast is expected to top it, making Sky shareholders very happy. Separately, Comcast is less likely to make another counter bid for the main prize of Fox's cable TV and movie assets, according to CNBC's David Faber.

But why do they want to buy Sky so much? 

Not so long ago, smart people on Wall Street wondered why anybody would want it at all: it remains a satellite broadcaster in a world moving to embrace internet-delivered content.

Still, Sky has a few things going for it, as one savvy London cab driver told Brian Roberts, the chief executive of Comcast.  Sky's competition is Virgin Media, owned by Liberty Global, and BT, a telecom company.

Here's why they're bidding:

  • Sky grew subscribers in its latest quarter through April. In a tough U.K. environment, the firm added 38,000 customers, though it lost 30,000 in Germany and Austria and a few more in Italy.
  • Not only does it own a major package of English Premier League games, it also paid less than previous deals for them as part of a long-term package.
  • Sky has movie relationships with Universal (owned by Comcast), Disney and AT&T's HBO.
  • It also has a broadband-delivered service for Sky customers who can't put a satellite dish on the roof.  

If Comcast wins, it will become the biggest pay-TV provider in the world with a total of 52 million customer relationships. It will also have an important U.K. lynchpin for NBC News, as it plans to transform Euronews into a global news service if it gets to add Sky News.

If the Fox/Disney deal goes through, Disney gets into the direct-to-consumer business in a big way.

Here's the FT's latest on the bidding war with Comcast pondering its next move after a GBP 24.5 billion ($32.3 billion) bid from Fox for Sky. Check out the FT's amusing photograph of Rupert and his wife Jerry from the Allen & Cos. Sun Valley conference.

Oprah's getting into the restaurant business

Oprah might not be running for president, but she’s placing more financial bets beyond TV and film to grow her empire. 

Winfrey, who made Vogue UK’s August cover, is getting into the restaurant business with an investment in Phoenix-based True Food Kitchen, which serves healthy food such as fish tacos. The company says its dishes mean to be anti-inflammatory. 

True Food Kitchen CEO Christine Barone told Advertising Age the company plans “to double in size over the next three years. We will be opening up a significant number of restaurants and really do need financing to help fund that growth.”

Oprah will join the company board.  

The “60 Minutes” correspondent also has an investment in Weight Watchers and a line of pre-made food with Kraft Heinz. Weight Watchers reported a 24 percent increase in revenue in the quarter through March. 

Winfrey has been in the spotlight lately. In June, she signed a content development partnership with Apple for new shows in addition to her existing long-term deal with Discovery Communications, which houses her OWN cable network and website.

Meanwhile Hearst’s “O, The Oprah Magazine,” ranked as 50th in terms of magazine audience with a total of 12 million people in May, according to the Association of Magazine Media. 

Martin Sorrell's plan to build a digital ad business has officially begun

Round one goes to Martin Sorrell and his new company, S4 Capital.

Sorrell, the former WPP Group chief executive, just agreed to acquire Dutch digital production company MediaMonks for about $353 million. The two companies are looking to build a futuristic ad business for the digital age by embracing creative ideas, experiences and media buying.

Sorrell's former employer, the advertising giant WPP, was also looking to acquire the company, and Sky News reports that Sorrell and WPP are at loggerheads over the purchase. Sorrell left the company after a blow-up with WPP's board, which had led an investigation against him. 

What's so special about a digital production company in Northern Holland you might ask? The firm's client list, which includes Netflix, Google, Twitter and Amazon.

In a filing about the acquisition, the two firms outlined a vision for building a digital media-buying platform and that the combined company will have 750 staff.

The Drum has a video of some of the futuristic work MediaMonks did for Audi. It's impressive.

Update: WPP Group didn't waste any time in making sure Martin Sorrell knows where they stand.

The company shared this statement with the media on Tuesday: “WPP’s lawyers wrote to Sir Martin’s lawyers last week pointing out the breach of his confidentiality undertakings in his approach to Mediamonks after his resignation from WPP. Despite subsequent protestations from Sir Martin’s lawyers, we are well aware of the facts and he has jeopardised his LTIP entitlement."

 

HBO's new owner doesn't sound very hands off

John Stankey, the new boss at AT&T's media unit, had a frighteningly cold assessment about what would be expected from the HBO staff under the new regime.

According to The New York Times, which obtained a tape of a recent town hall meeting, Stankey told HBO staff they needed to make more money and produce more hours to help AT&T monetize viewers through consumer data. He also likened the coming year to "childbirth," in other words difficult but worth it.

"We've got to make money at the end of the day, right?" he said.

AT&T declined to comment. 

It's hard to imagine Netflix chief executive Reed Hastings or the folks at Amazon rallying the troops with a call to make money and get data.

This Stankey comment in the New York Times report of the meeting, however, stuck out:

“I want more hours of engagement. Why are more hours of engagement important? Because you get more data and information about a customer that then allows you to do things like monetize through alternate models of advertising as well as subscriptions, which I think is very important to play in tomorrow’s world.”

Is this a hint that there's an ad-supported version of HBO in the planning stages?

Stankey, who heads up WarnerMedia, which houses the Time Warner media assets that AT&T bought, isn't coming out of these staff meetings looking too great. His promises of independence at CNN came with a surprising caveat. After explaining that AT&T wouldn't be second guessing the bosses, he added: "The second part of editorial independence is that freedom is earned by people who work hard and report factually and do their jobs well and that's what CNN does."

The "freedom is earned" part didn't go down to well with some. Here's Felix Salmon at Slate on why that caveat matters.

Ben Affleck — yes that Ben Affleck — appears to have predicted Spotify and Netflix back in 2003

Here's a fun catch — Ben Affleck called the emergence of streaming subscription services back in 2003. 

A clip of an Affleck interview was making the rounds over the weekend, in which the actor-director talks about how technology, including file-sharing services, are pushing consumers to realize that they could have access to an entire music library rather than just buying CDs. 

To put this in context, Facebook at the time had not yet been launched and Napster had been shut down just a couple years ago — and a solid three years before Spotify was founded.

It's worth a watch just to see how much of it came true. 

Daniel Arkin

MoviePass starts charging extra to see movies at 'peak' times

MoviePass, the subscription movie ticket service, is taking a page out of the Uber playbook.

The company rolled out a new surcharge on Thursday called "Peak Pricing." MoviePass users "may be asked to pay a small additional fee depending on the level of demand" for a flick, the company said in an email to its customers.

The effected showings will be labeled with a red lightning bolt icon and, according to Variety, will come at an additional cost between $2 and $6.

The announcement comes amid a tumultuous chapter for the upstart service. Wall Street has voiced doubts about the long-term viability of the business model ($9.99 per month for a movie per day), and a string of recent reports suggest MoviePass is running out of cash.

In the eyes of some financial analysts, it is only a matter of time before MoviePass faces a reckoning — surcharge or no surcharge.

Facebook wins British soccer rights for Southeast Asia

Facebook has soccer fever, and not just because of the World Cup. The social network has acquired rights to bring live English Premiere League matches to users in parts of Southeast Asia.

The three-year deal is worth $265.3 million, according to The Times of London. Facebook beat out BeIn Sports and Fox Sports Asia for the rights.

Earlier this week, it emerged that Facebook is also discussing a reality show featuring arguably the most famous soccer player in the world, Cristiano Ronaldo. Variety reports the project is destined for Facebook Watch. 

Much has been made about the  encroachment of tech giants in the world of sports media rights, but again this is another fringe deal, and hardly a knockout punch. 

Back in June, Amazon scored a package of 60 Premiere League games for UK viewers, after Sky and BT scooped up the bigger packages, according to the Financial Times. It is also prepping sales for its NFL Thursday night package. But while the tech giants tout their global audiences, it seems the sports rights owners are still keen on geographically segmenting their audiences.

Madison Square Garden chief thinks Fox's RSNs might be a tough sell (but that doesn't mean he isn't interested)

Who might buy the 22 regional sports networks that Fox and Disney have pledged to sell in order to receive Justice Department approval?

Put James Dolan, chief executive of Madison Square Garden Company, down as a maybe.

The networks, which include New York's valuable YES Network, are only theoretically for sale, of course, since Fox shareholders might be looking for another, better offer from Comcast, which owns NBCUniversal (parent company of NBC News).

"We're paying attention. I suppose at the right price we might," Dolan told The Query.

Still, the MSG chief was sanguine on their future growth: "We still think there's potential but the market is changing a lot and nobody is growing revenues much because everything is fully distributed and fully priced. The question is what happens from there."

Dolan, who is exploring splitting MSG into two separate units (one housing the sports teams including the New York Knicks, the other with the company's the entertainment venues), notes that RSNs are valuable and throw off a lot of money, but - and it's a big but: "It's a slow, declining revenue stream."

Here's CNBC's David Faber on the topic of the potential bidders and the potential auction. And here's Cablefax's list of likely bidders. Mergers and acquisitions reporting is such a world of caveats these days.

The royal wedding goosed Town & Country — Vanity Fair... not so much

Town & Country magazine had an incredible May thanks perhaps to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. 

The Hearst magazine saw the biggest audience increases of any magazine in web and mobile. Compared to May of last year, the magazine's 2018 web audience grew by an eye-popping 307 percent and 649 percent, respectively, according the Association of Magazine Media, which released its latest monthly audience statistics on Tuesday.

Surprisingly T&C's video audience dropped by a whopping 42.5 percent.

Town & Country is increasingly looking to become the society read of the moment under editor Stellene Volandes, who took over at the title in March 2016. 

The website carries stories about why Markle has been wearing so many blush tones and where the Spanish princesses are going to summer camp. No wonder former Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter is starting a new venture to cover royal families.

Meanwhile, Vanity Fair, which carried a cover photo of the royal couple in May, is struggling. The magazine's print and digital audience fell 6.7 percent (from 8 million to 7.5 million) in May versus a year ago. Mobile audience fell 8 percent. Video was a bright spot for the magazine, rising 12.6 percent for the month. 

Vanity Fair's Year-to-date total audience is up 0.1 percent, but again, growth is being driven by video.

ComScore, however, paints a different picture, with VF growing its multi-platform audience to 22.7 million in May 2018 from 17 million a year earlier.

The association reports that the total audience for magazines in May was 1.7 billion, up 1.4 percent versus May 2016.

CORRECTION (July 6, 7:07 p.m.): An earlier version of this article misstated the date that Stellene Volandes was hired as editor of Town & Country magazine. She was hired in March 2016, not March 2018.

Internet TV packages are getting pricier — including AT&T's

AT&T is raising prices on its streaming video bundle just weeks after telling the government that it's merger with Time Warner would result in lower prices for consumers.

The telecom giant added $5 to the price of DirecTV Now's cheapest online channel bundle, which now costs $40 — about the same as everyone else's — while removing HBO from one of its packages. It also jacked up its "administrative fee" to $1.99 per month.

This story from Ars Technica is a good reminder of what the company said it would do during the extensive court battle with the Justice Department and its real-world economics. The company says it also offered free channels to AT&T Unlimited subscribers.

AT&T isn't alone. Streaming video providers are entering a new phase of their lifecycle: trying to cover the cost of the channels they offer. Mid-year seems like a good time for a rethink on pricing, it appears.

Sling raised prices in June. Sling remains the cheapest offering with a $25 a month package called Orange, which includes ESPN. It is also offering individual channel choices too. Sony's Playstation Vue said this month it is raising prices for channels by $5 to $44.99 per month for the lowest tier, called Access, or $84.99 for the highest tier called Ultra. YouTube's YouTube TV, a cable like bundle raised its fee by $5 in March to $40.

Streamers have long pitched themselves as a cost efficient alternative to existing TV bundles, but it's worth remembering that the average price of broadband in the US is $58 per month, according to this FCC report

Maria Bartiromo criticized for toothless interview with Trump

Fox Business anchor Maria Bartiromo conducted an interview with President Donald Trump on Sunday — and it's not going down well with fellow journalists, many of whom criticized her lack of pushback on the president's responses. 

Michael Barbaro of The New York Times tweeted that the former CNBC host is now something other than a journalist after CNN's "Reliable Sources" anchor Brian Stelter suggested she sounded like a "counselor."

Bartiromo, once known as the "Money Honey" for her hard-edged coverage of business and finance, hosted the interview with the president on Fox News Channel's "Sunday Morning Futures."

But Bartiromo has been seen as one of many hosts at Fox News that have cozied up to the president. The recent interview provided more ammo for her critics, with Bartiromo agreeing with a variety of Trump's points.

On the subject of trade wars, Trump talked about how the US is getting ripped off. Bartiromo observed encouragingly: "And the markets feel like they're trusting you at this point."

Trump responded: "I think they trust me, and the farmers trust me." Bartiromo's response: "They do."

Bartiromo did have follow up questions  on the topic of tariffs, pushing Trump with industry claims that the taxes will hit consumers and result in a net loss of American jobs.  

Fox Business President Brian Jones stood by Bartiromo's interview.

“Maria Bartiromo’s wide-ranging interview with President Trump made news on multiple fronts and elicited answers to numerous questions," Jones said in an emailed statement. "We are proud of her hard work and continued success across each of her FBN and FNC programs.”

The transcript of the wide ranging interview, which touched on topics such as the next Supreme Court Justice pick and the Russia investigation, is here.

But it's worth noting that judging by the comments on the YouTube video posted here, Bartiromo still has plenty of fans.

Brian Ross is out at ABC News

Investigative journalist Brian Ross is out at ABC News.

Ross confirmed his departure in a tweet on Monday afternoon. The veteran network reporter had been suspended without pay from ABC News after incorrectly reporting on air that President Donald Trump had directed former national security advisor Michael Flynn to make contact with Russia's government during his election campaign.

The mistake led to a firestorm of criticism directed at Ross and ABC News. The President had called for Ross to be fired and noted that Ross' report had affected the stock market. The network clarified the report a few hours later, then apologized for the mistake and benched Ross for a month. He returned in January in a different position, working on long-form pieces but not about Trump.

It is unclear precisely why Ross and his producer Schwartz are departing at this time. The two intend to keep on with their investigative work, Ross said in his tweet.

ABC confirmed the departure in a memo from the network president James Goldston.