Howard Stern is a wealthy man, but he sought to be some $300 million richer after his radio employer, Sirius, doubled his audience by acquiring rival XM. Stern thought his contract said as much but a court disagreed. Businesspeople and lawyers alike can take a lesson from the deal, presented here in one of my three-part series this week on the unruliness of words–and numbers. Following on my accounts of whether the attack 14 years ago today on the WTC was one occurrence or two and whether The Hobbit film trilogy released by New Line Cinema was one film or three, here’s the Stern story.
The Howard Stern Show is a popular off-color program long aired on traditional radio. But in 2004, one of the leading satellite radio companies, Sirius Satellite Radio Inc., persuaded Stern to move his program to its service. Performance compensation under the resulting licensing agreement called for Sirius to pay Stern’s production company up to five separate awards of common stock in Sirius—each worth $75 million—if a series of ever-rising subscriber thresholds was met.
To implement this deal, the parties included in their formal written contract an exhibit setting out the company’s estimated number of subscribers as of year-end for each of the ensuing five years. The agreement then provided that the company would pay a stock bonus if at any year-end the actual number of subscribers exceeded the target by a specified amount: a first bonus for exceeding the target by two million; a second for exceeding it by four million; a third for exceeding by six million; a fourth for exceeding by eight million; and a fifth by ten million.
There was no dispute about what happened the first two years: at 2006, actual subscribers exceeded estimated subscribers by more than two million and Sirius promptly delivered $75 million worth of its stock to Stern; at 2007, actual subscribers did not exceed the target by more than four million, and therefore no bonus was due. A complication arose in 2008, however, because in that year Sirius acquired a rival, XM Radio, which had nearly ten million subscribers. So the parties disputed whether those subscribers counted as Sirius subscribers under the bonus provisions of the licensing agreement.
Resolution depended on determining the intended meaning of their contract in light of the specific terms of Sirius’s acquisition of XM. Before the acquisition, Sirius and XM were separate rivals of about equal size (Sirius had more than nine million subscribers)—and both had been wooing Stern to join them. After the acquisition, Sirius changed its name to Sirius XM, but the two continued to operate separately with their own subscribers, although subscribers could buy a premium package to add the other company’s offerings. About one million XM subscribers signed up for the Sirius package.
Counting only original Sirius subscribers, at year-end 2008, actual subscribers did not exceed target subscribers by more than four million contemplated for a second bonus award. Even adding the one million XM subscribers who bought access to Sirius, the target was not so surpassed. But if also counting the nearly ten million XM subscribers that Sirius acquired in the acquisition, then the target was exceeded by more than ten million, triggering all the bonuses and meaning Sirius owed Stern another $300 million worth of stock. Read More