You know that things are bad when leading online video site Youku Tudou (NYSE: YOKU) doesn’t issue a press release trumpeting its recent receipt of simultaneous broadcast rights for the highly hyped return of the US television series “24”. That’s my conclusion after having to read about this relatively big win for Youku in the news headlines rather than a company press release. In fact, Youku Tudou may deliberately want to downplay this latest triumph to avoid attracting Beijing censors who have recently started banning some popular US television series from online video sites.
I was an early big fan of the “24” franchise, which revolves around super-agent Jack Bauer in an unusual format that has each season acted out in real-time episodes over a 24-hour period. The series lasted for 8 seasons before being retired, but returned to the airwaves this week with a new season titled “24: Live Another Day”. Having watched a few of the earlier seasons, I can say “24” is far more violent and controversial than any of the 4 US TV series that were recently yanked from Chinese online video sites, including the innocuous “Big Bang Theory”.
All that said, let’s look at the latest headlines that say Youku Tudou has won the rights to simultaneously show episodes of the new “24” series as they make their US debuts. (Chinese article) At the same time, Youku Tudou also received exclusive rights to the 8 previous seasons of the series, which first started airing back in the early 2000s.
I’m exaggerating a bit when I say that Youku has kept this latest win low-profile, as the company was conducting plenty of publicity for the show for Chinese viewers on the Internet. Reports say Youku held special launch events in the major cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, and that it was also strongly promoting the show on its official microblogging account. Still, there was no official English press release that the company often issues to try and generate excitement among the overseas investors who buy its US stock.
That stock has taken a beating in recent months, with an acceleration of the downturn in the last 2 weeks since the Beijing crackdown began. That crackdown saw Beijing regulators abruptly announce that 4 popular US television series were being banned from Chinese video sites for unstated reasons. (previous post) The sector had already been thrown into turmoil a few days earlier after another regulator revoked the online video license of leading web portal Sina (Nasdaq: SINA) for hosting pornographic content on one of its sites. (previous post)
Youku Tudou’s shares are down more than 20 percent in the last 2 weeks since the recent crackdowns began, and have lost nearly half their value over the last 2 months amid a broader sell-off of China tech shares. Other online video operators are also down over the last 2 weeks, with shares of Baidu (Nasdaq: BIDU) and Sohu (Nasdaq: SOHU), owners of the nation’s second and third largest players, down 7 percent and 12 percent in that time.
Despite its industry-leading status, Youku Tudou has yet to post sustainable profits as it searches for reliable revenue streams. Late last month it sold nearly 20 percent of itself to leading e-commerce firm Alibaba in a bid to find new partners and generate some excitement about its prospects. But that news, and now this big win with “24”, don’t seem to be catching the attention of investors, who are clearly more worried about more restrictions from Beijing.
While we could see some more TV series banned, I do expect this current crackdown will pass soon and the damage to Youku and other video sites will be relatively limited. Accordingly, the stock could be near its bottom and even set for a rebound if the company gives an upbeat report and outlook when it announces its first-quarter results later this month.
Bottom line: Youku Tudou is keeping a low-profile among western investors until a recent series of government crackdowns subsides, after which its stock could see some upside.