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Making Discovery's stock fun to watch again

Has Discovery Communications forgotten how to put on a good show for investors?

That's an important question for the owner of the Discovery Channel and many other networks after its stock has underperformed peers in the last several months. The picture appeared worse on Tuesday, when the company missed earnings estimates by a hair and the stock fell 4 percent.

One area for concern is that Discovery has made a few acquisitions recently and strayed from its strategy of organic growth. The company last year acquired SBS Broadcasting, an operator of Nordic TV stations, for $1.8 billion.

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Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Although that deal should help Discovery bring its content to more viewers in Scandinavia over time, the immediate effect has been less appealing. Discovery's international division had an Ebitda margin of 32.9 percent in the first quarter, but without SBS it would have been 41.1 percent.

Still, it would be a mistake to forget Discovery's strong track record of growing organically by finding distributors overseas to carry its content. The company's programming is carried in well over 200 countries, strong evidence that much of its nature and reality programming has appeal across cultures.

Indeed, that strategy has plenty more potential. There are many countries where the percentage of homes with cable or satellite TV remains low. And some of those countries, such as Spain and Italy, will hopefully see an economic recovery over the next couple of years after being hit hard during the crisis.

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A smart way for Discovery to reach further into those markets is by launching new pay TV networks. Discovery already has years of experience with distributors and advertisers in many countries, making the launch of new networks less risky. Even more importantly, the company has rights to most of its content so the margins on those networks should be strong excluding some initial ramp-up costs.

Another high-margin opportunity is selling digital rights to streaming video services like Netflix, where it already has a deal. Although Discovery didn't renew a previous agreement with Amazon, it's possible another could be done. After all, Amazon has shown willingness to buy top-shelf content after purchasing rights to a bundle of original HBO programming last month.

And some of Discovery's acquisitions have potential to work wonders—even if they involve short-term pain. It now has a controlling stake in Eurosport International, which airs some of the continent's most popular sports aside from soccer. Walt Disney's ESPN generates several billion of revenue from distributors in the U.S. each year thanks to demand for live viewing of its programming. Even a small fraction of that would be a big success in Europe.

OWN, a joint venture with Oprah Winfrey, has become a huge ratings success after initial concerns it would lead to losses for Discovery.

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With such potential profit drivers, there shouldn't be pressure on Discovery to pursue many more large acquisitions. Analysts expect $1.35 billion of free cash flow this year, leaving plenty of scope for the company to buy back shares instead.

Discovery trades at 18.8 times consensus forward earnings, below its average of 20 times over the last two years. As the company returns to its old ways, it should draw a crowd once again.

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