Media CompaniesPinching Pennies

Margins improve despite disappointing ad revenue growth
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Still wary after the recession, it appears that formerly big-spending media companies have gotten better at pinching pennies.

So far during this quarter’s earnings reports, Viacom, Time Warner and Walt Disney Co. have reported somewhat disappointing revenue numbers, particularly when it comes to TV advertising sales. And yet, all three managed to exceed analysts’ earnings projections. News Corp. made its earnings numbers despite spending $87 million on fallout from its phone hacking scandal. Lower programming costs due to the NBA lockout also helped Time Warner, Disney and News Corp.

Many of the pinched pennies wound up in the pockets of shareholders.

“Finally by operating efficiently, managing costs and seizing every opportunity to monetize our content, we continue to generate significant free cash flow and to make good on our commitment to return substantial capital to our shareholders, both in the form of stock buybacks and dividends,” CEO Philippe Dauman told analysts during Viacom’s recent earnings conference call.

A commitment to containing costs is important, even though most companies see signs that the first quarter ad market will be better than it was in the fourth quarter.

To be sure, media companies still spend millions on big-ticket items such as their CEOs and football. But they have convinced analysts they have a playbook for making money when they make significant investments in content.

During Disney’s conference call, analyst Doug Mitchelson of Deutsche Bank asked about the company’s new agreements with Comcast and the NFL. The former sets the pace for future revenue growth, while the latter represents a major expense for ESPN, a key asset. With both being long-terms deals, Mitchelson asked: “Is it fair to say that you have increased comfort in the ability for ESPN to continue to expand margins over time?” “Yes,” responded Disney CEO Bob Iger.

The conference calls often give CEOs an opportunity to present their views on some of the major issues facing the industry. And where they stand is often defined by where they sit.

For example, with ESPN being the cable service subscribers pay the most for, whether or not they are sports fans, it’s not too surprising that Iger sees few benefi ts to the industry turning to an a la carte model.

“I think people want variety and they’re getting it today, and they’re also getting substantially increased quality” under the current system, Iger said. He added that, on average, subscribers get about 100 channels for $60 per month.

With an a la carte system, “there would be channels that are of interest to a lot of entities, in some cases niche channels, that would simply go away, and I don’t think that would necessarily be good,” Iger said. “Secondly, the channels that were left would see decreased distribution, decreased ratings, decreased advertising revenue, and that would put a lot of pressure on the rates that they charge, so rates would go up. The result would be that consumers would be spending more per channel, and it’s quite possible that the $60 100-channel package would quickly become a $60 50-channel package.”

Asked about the over-the-top joint venture of Coinstar’s Redbox and Verizon announced last week, Iger said he was puzzled. “I read the Verizon-Redbox [news] about four times and I even turned it upside-down and sideways, and I’m still not 100% sure I understand what they’re offering,” he said. “But my sense is that it’s going to be another opportunity for us to sell content to the marketplace.”

Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes, the earliest proponent of TV Everywhere, which allows subscribers to view programming on devices other than the TV for no extra charge, extolled the progress the industry is making in heading off the over-the-top threat.

“Two years ago, TV Everywhere, or what many call authentication, was only an idea with no technology underlying it and no industry support,” Bewkes said. “It has come a long way. Today, authenticated TV has been embraced by every major distributor and program.”

But News Corp. COO Chase Carey said he was frustrated by the slow adoption of authentication. “In this world, you can’t spend three or four years getting something going,” Carey told analysts. “I think TV Everywhere, authentication, whatever you want to call it, is the right solution to the marketplace, but we’ve got to execute better.”

E-mail comments to jlafayette@nbmedia.com and follow him on Twitter: @jlafayette

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