UPDATE, 9:30 AM: Jeff Bewkes probably rues the day he agreed to sit down with Charlie Rose for an interview last week: The Time Warner CEO spent much of this morning’s quarterly conference call with Wall Street analysts explaining what many of his answers meant — especially his apparent about-face in saying that he now welcomes Netflix’s effort to become an online programming service. “I’ve tried at times to be humorous,” says Bewkes, who once likened Netflix to the Albanian Army trying to take over the world. For those who didn’t get the joke about welcoming Netflix, he says that he thinks it’s fine for the Web service to buy lots of old TV re-runs. “That’s good for everybody.” But that doesn’t mean he wants Netflix to serve as an inexpensive alternative to traditional cable networks including HBO. He’s against having a subscription video service that would “devalue the content.” Bewkes says he isn’t concerned yet about cable and satellite customers cancelling their pay TV service in favor of Netflix and free programming from over-the-air broadcasters. “We don’t think U.S. consumers want less choice,” he says. That’s why he’s “open to the idea” of renting more Warner Bros programming to Netflix as well as other services that are “rustling around in the forest.” As for his statement that Time Warner was likely to exceed expectations, Bewkes says that was “taken a little out of context.” He simply meant that the company “will continue to grow steadily over the long run.” Rose “wasn’t asking about this quarter. He isn’t a financial analyst.”
On other matters, Bewkes defended Time Warner’s costly decision to pick up some of the broadcast rights that CBS had to NCAA basketball championship games – which contributed to anemic 1Q profit growth at the Turner cable networks. “We think this is going to be a profitable deal over time,” Bewkes says. As for the television upfront ad sales market, Bewkes says that while he “won’t be too specific,” early indications are that pricing will be “very positive,” with Turner networks “near the top edge of the industry range.” He also hedged his support for Premium VOD – where Warner Bros and other studios are beginning to offer films to cable and satellite VOD services just eight weeks after they debut in theaters. If that cannibalizes ticket sales “then it’s something we have to rethink.” He bemoaned Warners’ “relatively light release slate” from early this year, but says he expects much stronger results this year from Green Lantern and sequels for Harry Potter, Happy Feet and Sherlock Holmes.
PREVIOUS, 5:15 AM: Time Warner had a so-so first quarter, mostly because its early 2011 films such as Hall Pass and Red Riding Hood couldn’t help Warner Bros keep pace with last year, when it was still benefiting from Sherlock Holmes and The Blind Side. Still, the results slightly exceeded analyst expectations. The company reported net earnings of $653 million, down 10% from the same period last year, on revenues of nearly $6.7 billion, up 6%. Profits at 58 cents a share beat by a penny the average forecast among Wall Street analysts. They likely will want CEO Jeff Bewkes to assure them that things will improve at Warner Bros: The studio’s operating income fell 50% to $152 million while its revenues were off 3% to $90 million. Another question is why operating income at Time Warner’s cable networks only increased 2%. The company says it’s largely due to a 37% jump in programming costs, which this year includes the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship. But Time Warner also says that basketball contributed to a 31% increase in ad revenues.
We’ll have more later, after Time Warner holds its quarterly call with analysts.