To woo younger generations of viewers who watch videos online and on mobile devices, traditional television studios are rapidly snatching up venture capital backed online video startups, known as multi-channel networks (MCNs). Time Warner Inc. (NYSE: TWX), German television company ProSiebenSat.1 Media AG and Walt Disney Co. (NYSE: DIS) have each made recent purchases in the space.
MCNs are the latest step in the evolution of online video, first popularized by quirky user-generated clips on YouTube, which Google Inc. (Nasdaq: GOOG) bought for $1.65 billion in 2006. The demographics of the audience are clearly attractive to TV advertisers too. Hit shows on MCNs have millions of Generation Y and Z viewers. For example, PewDiePie, a 24-year-old Swedish gamer, boasts 24 million subscribers.
No wonder Disney agreed to buy Maker Studios Inc., the MCN producer of PewDiePie's content. Since 2009, Maker has raised $66 million in venture capital from Greycroft Partners, Upfront Ventures and Time Warner Investments. It produces thousands of videos on YouTube, generating roughly 5.5 billion monthly views. Among its contributors are Jordanian comedian Kassem Gharaibeh and actor Robert De Niro's Tribeca Enterprises.
Former Maker Studios chief executive Danny Zappin, who last year accused the board of ousting him and taking control of the company through fraud, is currently seeking to delay a shareholder vote on the Disney's $500 million acquisition.
If Disney completes the Maker deal, it would follow Warner, which made a similar move in March when it bought an $18 million stake in Machinima, a video game-focused YouTube MCN. Investors MK Capital and Redpoint Ventures also participated.
Following Disney was ProSiebenSat.1, which recently agreed to buy a 20 percent stake in Collective Digital Studio LLC, a Los Angeles MCN.
"It's kind of a land grab," says Wade Layton, managing director of CIT Corporate Finance's media group. "If you can aggregate a lot of eyeballs and not spend a lot on the content itself, it's an interesting model. You can make money just on the exploitation of that content. It helps a company like Disney."
Bryan Cave LLP's Ronald Jacobi also noticed the trend, adding that traditional Hollywood companies are "definitely looking to smaller content providers."
Disney has been an active acquirer in recent years, with several significant multi-billion dollar deals under its belt. The company bought Pixar Animation Sudios for $7.4 billion in 2006, Marvel Entertainment for $4 billion in 2009 and Lucasfilm Ltd. for $4.05 billion in 2012. Disney also procures digital content providers for under $1 billion, including the $700 million deal for online gamer Club Penguin in 2007.
Meanwhile, Maker has done a bit of dealmaking in its own right. In August, the Culver City, Calif. company bought Blip, a New York video distribution network that raised $24.3 million from Bain Capital Ventures and Canaan Partners.