Just say no to TiVo
Sure, the DVR is cool. But the company is expected to report another big quarterly loss as it struggles to sign up new subscribers.
By Paul R. La Monica, CNNMoney.com senior writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) - Wall Street has a love-hate relationship with TiVo.

Ask people what they think about the company's popular digital video recorder and most will gush (in almost orgasmic fashion, no less) about how wonderful TiVo (Research) is. "It changed my life! I can't imagine watching TV without it!"

TiVo is cool and its customers love it...but the company faces a tough battle against cable firms who offer their own digital video recorders.
TiVo is cool and its customers love it...but the company faces a tough battle against cable firms who offer their own digital video recorders.
Stock isn't zooming: Customers love using TiVo to quickly fast forward through commercials..but it looks like Wall Street has pushed the pause button on the stock for the past year.
Stock isn't zooming: Customers love using TiVo to quickly fast forward through commercials..but it looks like Wall Street has pushed the pause button on the stock for the past year.

And the company keeps rolling out innovative new features, such as Tuesday's announcement with phone company Verizon (Research). Later this year, Verizon Wireless customers will be able use their cell phones to remotely program their TiVo at home.

But ask analysts and investors about the stock and it's a different story. Despite the fact that TiVo's product is almost universally praised, shares have been stuck in pause mode, trading in a range of between $5 and $6 a share for the better part of the past year.

Fueling Wall Street's disdain is the fact that TiVo is expected to report a loss of 23 cents per share for its fiscal fourth-quarter Wednesday. In fact, the company has piled up losses throughout most of its history, though it did break even in the second quarter of 2005.

Cool product...but brutal competition

TiVo has unveiled several interesting partnerships in recent months that are undoubtedly cool. For example, in addition to the Verizon deal, TiVo has a similar partnership with search engine Yahoo! (Research) that lets TiVo users to program their TiVo from the TV section on Yahoo!'s site.

TiVo also announced in November of last year that it had struck agreements with Apple (Research) and Sony to allow users to transfer TiVo-ed content to the companies' iPod and PSP portable devices, respectively.

Still, analysts say these services may just appeal to the existing, albeit loyal, base of current TiVo users, and will not help the company add many more users.

"I'm not sure these features will generate much revenue or that many new subscribers," said Brian Coyne, an analyst with Friedman, Billings, Ramsey. "A considerable amount of TiVo's installed base are technology early adopters that want these types of mobile services."

Simply put, many investors fear that TiVo just can't compete with larger cable firms such as Time Warner and Cox, which each offer their own digital video recorder services in cable boxes made by the likes of Motorola and Scientific-Atlanta, which was recently bought by Cisco Systems (Research). (Time Warner owns CNNMoney.com.)

In addition, DirecTV, TiVo's biggest partner, is likely to soon stop offering TiVo early next year. TiVo said in late November that about 2.7 million of its 4 million subscribers came from DirecTV, the nation's largest satellite TV firm.

DirecTV's agreement to sell TiVo to its customers will end in early 2007 and the company, which is controlled by media giant News Corp., has indicated that it soon intends to begin selling DVRs from NDS Group, another News Corp.-controlled company, to its subscribers instead.

So TiVo is faced with an uphill battle against several truly large companies in media and technology.

"When you try and outmarket somebody with vastly more scale, scope and money, it's like climbing a cliff. TiVo has had some success, but for the long-term it's going to be tough to survive," said Scott Cleland, chief executive officer of Precursor, an independent research firm focusing on the telecom and media sectors.

Still waiting for profits

In order to attract subscribers, the company has spent large sums on marketing efforts. It also has subsidized the cost of its TiVo boxes to gain customers, often offering sizable rebates for the hardware.

What's more, the company even said last week that it is considering a plan to give away the boxes for free to some consumers, in the hopes that this will lead to bigger subscriber gains and hence, more recurring monthly revenue from customers.

Several analysts are skeptical of this strategy. Some argue that TiVo should throw in the towel on its efforts to gain customers by selling TiVo boxes in stores, and should instead sell its software directly to cable firms in licensing deals.

"Selling the services on their own or even giving the box away is a bit of a tough sell," said Mark Harding, an analyst with Maxim Group. "Even though TiVo has a very nice interface, the single box DVR solution that you get from your cable company is a compelling alternative to TiVo."

TiVo does have one such partnership with Comcast, the nation's largest cable firm, set to begin later this year. Harding said that more licensing deals would be beneficial to TiVo because it would mean lower marketing costs.

But there are questions about how much revenue the Comcast deal and other potential arrangements with cable outfits will actually generate for TiVo. Analysts say that the cable companies probably will negotiate for a significant percentage of the monthly subscriber fees that the TiVo services generate, meaning that these deals might not be very profitable for TiVo.

"TiVo is willing to license to all comers for what I suspect is not a lot of money," said Steven Frankel, an analyst with Cannacord Adams.

Takeover may be only hope

Analysts are also divided about whether or not TiVo will be able to cash in from an upcoming court case. TiVo has sued satellite TV firm EchoStar for patent infringement, and that trial will begin on March 27. A legal victory and a sizable payout from EchoStar for TiVo could be a significant plus, while a defeat could send investors fleeing.

But even if TiVo were to win in court, that may not be enough to change the long-term competitive challenges facing TiVo.

"The litigation with EchoStar is a potential positive, but I don't believe a court case victory alone creates a sustainable profitable business for TiVo," said Frankel.

With all that said, some say that investors may simply be holding out hope that TiVo will eventually get acquired by another company. TiVo has often been mentioned in takeover chatter, with names like Apple, Google (Research) and Sony coming up as possible buyers.

"Will somebody buy TiVo? It could bring a company strong brand recognition and a clear leader in technology. But whether or not that's something competitors feel they need, I don't know," said Michael Kelman, an analyst with Susquehanna Financial Group.

However, most analysts aren't banking on a buyout in the near future. After all, nothing has happened yet and companies like Cisco and Motorola, which bought set-top box maker General Instrument in 2000, have clearly decided to acquire TiVo rivals instead.

"Obviously history tells you there has been more rumor than truth behind all this takeover talk," notes Murray Arenson, an analyst with Ferris, Baker Watts.

Cannacord's Frankel puts it even more bluntly.

"There has been perennial speculation about a TiVo buyout, but I don't see an obvious sugar daddy on the horizon," he said.


For more about TiVo's partnership with Apple, click here.

For personal technology news , click here.

Analysts quoted in this story do not own shares of TiVo and their firms have no investment banking relationships with the company.

The reporter of this story owns shares of Time Warner through his company's 401(k) plan. Top of page

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