Comscore's new investors will leave once-embattled company 'essentially debt free'
Comscore announced a deal late Thursday that would leave the long-embattled media measurement company debt free and publicly held without having to sell its digital audience or box office measurement businesses.
The deal brings in three new investors—including private-equity firm Cerberus Capital Management; home shopping and e-commerce player Qurate Retail; and cable operator Charter Communications—none of which will own more than 16.6% of Comscore. Their combined investment will essentially eliminate debt and buy out the interest of hedge fund investor Starboard Capital.
“It cleans up our balance sheet. We have essentially no debt,” said Comscore CEO Bill Livek in an interview. “If you look at the measurement space, having debt really saddles a company.”
While Livek didn’t bring up principal competitor Nielsen by name, Nielsen Global Media, which like Comscore is looking to invest in new technology behind cross-media measurement, in November announced the sale of its Nielsen Connect consumer and retail measurement and analytics business to raise $2.7 billion that will retire a portion of its $8 billion in debt.
Livek made an analogy between cross-media measurement and video distribution—specifically Blockbuster Video—which he said ultimately couldn’t fend off competition from Netflix because of its heavy debt load.
Comscore’s deal could substantially boost a company that has faced years of tumult and pressure, including settlement in 2019 of a long-running Securities and Exchange Commission investigation into accounting irregularities and a revolving door in leadership. That included the abrupt departure of former CEO Bryan Wiener and President Sarah Hofstetter in early 2019. Livek succeeded Wiener in late 2019.
Comscore’s stock plunged when prior executives left and has largely treaded water in the $2-$4 range since, though it rose 16% in late trading Thursday on word of an impending deal from The Wall Street Journal.
The new investment, expected to be approved by shareholders this quarter, concludes a strategic review ongoing since 2019. The review had fueled speculation by people close to the company that it would be taken private by a private-equity fund or sell its original but shrinking digital audience measurement business or its box office measurement business, which dominates its space but faces headwinds from pandemic-related theater woes.
None of those will happen in the proposed deal, Livek said. Under its terms, Charter and Comcast will also provide long-term data rights that the company says will help provide more accurate media measurement nationally and locally. Charter will treat Comscore as “its preferred local measurement partner,” the company said. And Cerberus will provide data and analytics capabilities that aid in areas including programmatic ad sales, along with capital.
With Qurate, owner of QVC and Zulily, Comscore will have a well-rounded ownership group that includes an e-commerce and retail player and a major cable infrastructure player alongside prior ownership from an agency holding company, WPP, Livek said. The three new investors each will have two seats on an expanded 10-member board.