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Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Little Merger That Could

Here we are six months down the road from the first announcement by XM and Sirius that they intended to merge these two companies to form a singular satellite radio company.

From the beginning, Bridge Ratings has examined the response by the consumer - both current and potential satellite radio subscribers - to better understand the perceptions about such a merger.

From the start, the mood among both groups of consumers was not positive. In fact, they were very near equal. The general consensus was that it would be bad for the public. The current subscribers we interviewed were more concerned than the potential subscriber group, but I think that had more to do with the passion current subscribers have for their preferred service and an emotional response to change.

Now, six months later, the mood has generally moved to the more positive side by current subscribers while potential subs have not moved much off their initial "monopolies aren't good for consumers" position. Perhaps the difference in perceptions by these two consumer groups has more to do with the satellite companies marketing to these subscribers. I think they simply did a better job internally marketing the coming merger.

And as Congress considers Mel Karmazin's statements and all the supportive paperwork associated with both sides' reasons for merging or not, there are two signs now that are much clearer for me which point to the approval of this merger.

1) God love David Rehr, President of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB). He has been on the job only a short time and done a great job. He has certainly made a case for his passion for the radio business and his willingness and ability to be direct and confrontational in defense of all things radio.

As a great consumer products CEO once told me about products of all kind, "Products have strengths and weaknesses...and in most cases, one's strength is also one's weakness."

In the case of the NAB and Mr. Rehr in particular, he doth protest too much.

In his passion to protect radio in the case of a satellite merger, Mr. Rehr has firmly crystallized Mr. Karmazin's point that a merged satellite company is not a monopoly because the "marketplace" is varied with many competitive offerings.

The whole merger approval likely will hinge on a singular point: the definition of the competitive market in which satellite radio competes. Is their market satellite radio? Or is it all audio radio which today is defined not only by satellite radio, but traditional radio, Internet radio, iPods, iPhones, Podcasts, cell phones, etc., etc.

Mr. Rehr's enthusiasm has confirmed for Congress that terrestrial radio is so concerned about the possibility of a merger, that the louder Mr. Rehr protests, the more obvious it is that traditional radio considers satellite radio a competitive medium thereby defining the market.

The second reason I think this merger will go forward?

The early departure of XM's brilliant CEO Hugh Panero. He was to leave his post at the point the merger occurred, but the news is so encouraging, Hugh has set an August date for vacating his office in order for the cleaning crews in DC to get his office ready for Mel. There's confidence there that cannot be denied and it is backed by encouragement from Capitol Hill.

Now with everything I know, I believe that between XM & Sirius, the combined entity will offer a solid consumer product, will not diminish the current experience and will encourage potential subscribers - especially those buying cars and trucks - to go forward with their choice.

And, oh yes, I forgot: Howard Stern will attract an additional 500,000 to 800,000 new listeners over the next 18 months. XM subscribers who have missed him.

Was the approval of this merger terrestrial radio's to lose? I think so. The strategy was wrong. The NAB made the case for the other side.

Radio should now forget about satellite radio as a competitor, get back on track (it's been distracted for five years) and look to developing better content, re-hire its best talent that has left the business and market its digital platforms.

Your comments are always welcome.

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