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Who has most at stake in YouTube channels? Not Disney

The traditional television industry now looks divided over how much the fast-growing channels on Google's YouTube are really worth. For some, the answer may be crucial.

Walt Disney announced Monday night it would pay $500 million for YouTube content network Maker Studios, with another $450 million to come later if the company hits certain performance targets.

While unlikely to be very profitable yet, Maker Studios may have significant value to Disney down the road as young consumers shift their viewing habits away from TV to short-form videos on YouTube. Disney said Maker Studios has 380 million subscribers across 55,000 channels.

Read MoreDisney to buy YouTube network Maker Studios for $500M

Walt Disney and DreamWorks Animation both have investments in major YouTube channels.
Guy Calaf (L) & Patrick T. Fallon (R) | Getty Images
Walt Disney and DreamWorks Animation both have investments in major YouTube channels.

One surprise is that Disney may wind up paying three times what a group of prominent media investors thought Maker Studios was worth just over a year ago.

In December 2012, a consortium including Time Warner's Time Warner Investments and Elisabeth Murdoch, daughter of Rupert Murdoch and founder of TV production company Shine Group, bought a partial stake in Maker Studios. That deal valued the company at around $300 million, according to a person familiar with the matter. Time Warner declined to comment and Elisabeth Murdoch couldn't be reached for comment.

Despite the dramatic change in valuation, investors should give Disney some benefit of the doubt. After all, the company's purchases of Marvel Entertainment and Lucasfilm, each about $4 billion, looked somewhat expensive at the time. But Disney has planned movies, characters and theme park attractions around those brands, likely expanding their value significantly. And ultimately, Maker Studios isn't a huge bet for Disney, given its $139 billion market capitalization.

In contrast, independent studio DreamWorks Animation has much more at stake in the YouTube world. The company, which has a market capitalization of $2.2 billion, said last May it would pay $33 million plus up to another $117 million to buy AwesomenessTV, a highly popular teen network on YouTube.

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The Disney deal with Maker Studios suggests AwesomenessTV could be worth quite a bit more, based on back-of-the envelope math.

In February, AwesomenessTV had 74 million unique desktop viewers globally, compared with 205 million for Maker Studios, according to comScore, which doesn't include mobile views. Assuming Disney pays the full $950 million, it would imply a valuation of $343 million for AwesomenessTV if each viewer is assigned the same value at each company.

What's more, AwesomenessTV is growing even faster than Maker Studios. AwesomenessTV had 269 million desktop video views in February, up twentysevenfold from the same month of 2013. Maker Studios video views rose a more modest 61 percent to 1.9 billion over the same period, according to comScore.

AwesomenessTV is also focused on a single channel with a high density of teen viewers. That's a rare asset and potentially attractive to advertisers who historically have gone to traditional TV networks like Viacom's Nickelodeon.

DreamWorks is in need of such an asset because its core movie business is prone to volatility. After the big success of its "Shrek" movies last decade, the company has had a mixed record in recent years. Its latest movie, "Mr. Peabody and Sherman," may wind up losing money, according to some analysts who follow the stock.

The trouble is that the company has significant fixed overhead that's tough to recover without box-office success. DreamWorks Animation didn't respond to a request for comment.

As a result, analysts have a wide range of estimates for how much the company will earn this year, ranging from 38 cents per share to $1.00 per share. That reflects a significant decline or improvement from the 65 cents per share earned last year.

AwesomenessTV may be just what DreamWorks needs to diversify away from film. Along with other income streams, such as television, DreamWorks Animation could generate 40 percent of revenue from nonfilm sources by 2015, up from 22 percent in 2013, estimates Tony Wible, an analyst for Janney Montgomery Scott.

With that in mind, the Disney deal may have been better news for DreamWorks Animation than anyone else.

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