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CBS move to own shows like 'MacGyver' pays off in overseas sales

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Just over a decade ago, CBS Corp accelerated its push to own more of the shows it broadcasts, rather than licensing them from studios.

[NEW YORK] Just over a decade ago, CBS Corp accelerated its push to own more of the shows it broadcasts, rather than licensing them from studios.

That expensive and potentially risky decision is starting to pay dividends as the network's international sales rise and more viewers watch television online.

CBS figured correctly that owning a show, such as the reboot of the 1980s hit "MacGyver," would allow it to take a greater share of sales to international and domestic buyers.

More recently, that approach has allowed it to maximize the value of deals with streaming services like Netflix Inc while driving more subscribers to its own TV app.

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That new-found power is helping CBS, just as it and rival networks are getting squeezed by young viewers who "cut the cord" on their expensive cable packages, contributing to a dip in the advertising dollars that are TV companies' traditional mainstay.

Global hits that CBS owns, like "Hawaii Five-O" and "NCIS," helped swell CBS's international content licensing revenue to US$1.5 billion in 2015, up from US$500 million 10 years earlier.

That represented 11 per cent of total revenue, compared with about 3.5 per cent a decade ago.

Last year, such dramas got an average of 36 per cent of revenue internationally, according to previously unpublished data shown to Reuters by CBS. Ten years ago, comparable shows on average got 16 per cent of their revenue from international distributors.

In total, CBS owns all of part of 26 shows from its lineup of 31 for the 2017-2018 season. That is a significant bump up from 10 years ago, when it owned just 16 shows out of 26.

CBS now routinely turns a profit on new shows through international sales even before they air in the United States, a rare feat only a few years ago.

"Before, you were flying blind and could sink US$3 million into a pilot and cross your fingers, hoping someone would buy it," Joseph Ianniello, chief operating officer of CBS, told Reuters in an interview. "Now you go into it with a lot more certainty." CBS is not alone in focusing on owning its content, but it has been more aggressive than rivals, with ownership of greater than 80 per cent of its shows, compared with over 70 per cent for rivals such as Comcast Corp's NBCUniversal and Walt Disney Co's ABC, said John Janedis, an analyst at Jefferies.

US TV networks are likely to see ad revenue drop between 1 per cent and 2 per cent this year, excluding ad sales related to last year's Rio Olympics, according to Pivotal Research Group.

CBS's ownership of shows has insulated it somewhat from that drop.

In the United States, CBS expects that between its Showtime streaming service and All Access - both of which bypass cable TV altogether by allowing people to watch on smartphones and tablets - to hit 8 million subscribers and US$800 million in combined revenue by 2020. That compares with about 3 million subscribers now. CBS does not disclose how much revenue the two services generate now.

That, along with its burgeoning international revenue, means CBS is less dependent on ad sales, which now provide less than half of CBS's total revenue, compared with almost 70 per cent five years ago, according to company filings.

The strategy does have risks. CBS's desire to own content means that it sometimes passes on potential hit shows it does not have a stake in, such as the revival of the popular "American Idol," which was picked up by ABC.

Equally, the strategy only works as long as CBS creates content that people want to buy, according to Salvatore Muoio, whose firm invests in several media companies but not CBS. "But if you own the rights to a show, it can make up for a few duds because you have other revenue streams," he said.

CBS also has to shoulder more of the cost of making shows.

Its production costs rose 37 per cent between 2011 and 2016. They now represent 34 per cent of CBS's operating expenses, up from 23 per cent in 2011, according to company filings.

"They have the capacity to produce more content, which they can put exclusively on their own streaming services that will help drive subscribers, but they have to be smart about how they invest," said Tim Nollen, an analyst at Macquarie Bank. "The cost of content only goes up." CBS has so far managed to offset those rising costs with higher revenue. And the money it gets from selling its own content is making up a bigger part of its total revenue.

The network got US$845 million in content licensing and distribution revenue in the first quarter of this year, representing 25 per cent of its total sales. That is up from US$729 million, or 20 per cent of its revenue, for the same quarter last year.