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Cable Show 2013: Media CEOs Look Overseas for Continued Growth Opportunities

Despite Euro Macro Woes, Discovery, Liberty Global, Viacom Boost Profits 6/11/2013 11:01 AM Eastern

In the international panel that capped Tuesday's Cable Show General Session, three top media CEOs made the case for overseas investment, saying growth outside the U.S. would be a vital part of continued growth.

Discovery president and CEO David Zaslav, Liberty Global CEO Michael Fries and Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman all attested to how international strength has keyed their stock market surge over the past 12 months. All three companies' stocks have risen between 30% and 50% in that period.

"When I took over about seven years ago, we had about $720 million in profit as a company and $100 million of that was international," Zaslav told moderator Becky Quick of CNBC. "This past year, we made more money internationally than we did as a whole company seven years ago."

Media companies should not be spooked by the series of crises unfolding in parts of Europe, Dauman argued.

"The U.S. economy has been improving slowly but surely," the Viacom chief said. "Outside of the U.S., especially in continental Europe, it has been a little bit difficult. But that's an opportunity to expand our networks and launch new ones and establish a bigger beachfront."

The panelists spoke of putting billions of dollars toward new programming each year. "It's the lifeblood of our industry," Dauman said. As an operator, Fries noted that he also spends about $2 billion a year - "on your programming," pointing at his panel mates. Parried Zaslav, "It's not enough. We need more."

More seriously, Fries said revitalized programming is also crucial for his business. Liberty Global, which is controlled by John Malone, just closed a $24 billion cash-and-stock acquisition of Virgin Media. That deal gives the company 25 million total customers, 90% of whom are in Europe. Virgin Media is the top U.K. cable operator, with nearly 5 million customers.

"We need greater partnership with our programmers, especially U.S.-based programmers," Fries said. "We're finding that the free-to-air broadcasters in Europe that really dominate viewership and own a lot of the best content are our go-to partners when it comes to catch-up TV and VOD so the message I would give people here is, be aggressive and work with us in the same way you work with operators here."

Viacom and Discovery take somewhat different approaches to conquering international territories. Most Discovery fare is fairly universal, requiring minimal localization or adaptation. "One of the reasons our international margins are 40% is that our content works so well around the world," Zaslav said. "If you turn on Science in Italy or in Romania, they think it's their channel."

Viacom has SpongeBob SquarePants and other global superstars, but is just as avidly working to adapt hit properties for local markets. Dauman said it's also moving both ways. "It's becoming multicultural," he said. "We're finding more and more that content created around the world is going all over the world." He cited Viacom's partnership in Colors, a network created in India which is now also carried in the U.S., the U.K. and elsewhere.

"Consumers want the same things everywhere," Fries said. "They're just essentially at different levels of awareness."

September