Where would the ad dollars be going? Advertising executives say there's plenty of appetite for high-quality video content. Display ads can have limited usefulness, especially when there are several of them on the same Web page. A 15- or 30-second video spot is a rare opportunity to capture the attention of someone on the Web.
For now, much of that content belongs to big media companies themselves. Video-streaming service Hulu, for instance, is a joint venture between 21st Century Fox, Walt Disney and CNBC parent Comcast. Such sources account for more than 50 percent of the available video ad minutes that marketers choose to buy over the Internet, according David Bank, an analyst at RBC Capital Markets.
TV companies have been slow to put their content online and they could fall behind if they don't make digital a priority. Hulu was considered very controversial just a few years ago and some networks are reluctant to give consumers a way to circumvent highly lucrative cable-TV packages.
And many TV companies have chosen to sell content to the likes of Netflix and Amazon, which display movies and shows on ad-free platforms. It's not clear that the revenue from those platforms will be sufficient to make up for lost advertising revenue in the long run. After all, Netflix has already committed $9 billion to future streaming content obligations and yet generates virtually no free cash flow. At some point, there may not be as much to milk from a Netflix deal.
The door is open for a deep-pocketed technology company like Google or even Yahoo to spend more on high-quality content that advertisers want. Google has been somewhat slow to spend money on originals but its platform alone could attract self-funded projects. Even Twitter's Vine video-blogging service may attract advertisers as it gains popularity.
At the moment, Fox's Carey probably doesn't have too much to worry about. CBS is downright bullish, citing an improvement in advertising sales and an acceleration seen early in the fourth quarter.
Indeed, there's other evidence advertising was growing at a pace that wasn't sustainable in recent years. After a sharp falloff during the crisis, advertising spending needed to catch up, according to analyst Brian Wieser of Pivotal Research. He points out that advertising rose an impressive 3.2 percent in 2013, even without the benefit of elections or the Olympics.
But now, with the economy expanding only slowly, a more modest pace makes sense. Wieser also points out that several big advertisers added much less to their budgets in 2014 than they did in 2013. He expects advertising growth of 2.5 percent in 2014 with a pickup to 2.7 percent next year.
Big TV companies may have avoided the digital threat this time. But the battle has just begun.
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