Big Media companies in the Q1 earnings season that wrapped this week reminded me of Garrison Keilor’s description of the kids in Lake Woebegon: Virtually everybody was above average, at least when measured against analysts’ expectations. Media stocks began to trade ahead of the overall market as Q1 reports spread their cheery results. But CEO presentations to analysts left me thinking that companies simply had a good quarter. With just a few exceptions — Dish Network’s Charlie Ergen comes to mind — they seemed as complacent as ever about the need for bold initiatives to reinvigorate their maturing businesses. Movie theaters still aren’t addressing the long-term declines in ticket sales. Studios still don’t know what to do about their evaporating DVD sales. Networks appear flummoxed by the general decline in their ratings. And most pay TV distributors can’t imagine anything besides marketing gimmicks that might enable them to proactively boost subscriptions. In order to beat the Street’s earnings expectations, several companies relied on unsustainable gambits. They cut costs, raised prices, and enjoyed the fruits of conveniently timed licensing deals with digital streaming services including Netflix and Amazon. It sounded like they’re hoping that they can keep coming up with new tricks, and that they’ll be bailed out by continuing growth in the overall economy, which remains vulnerable to shocks including a possible worsening of the European debt crisis.
With CEOs so desperate for revenue, you could almost hear their hearts sink when analysts asked them about one of investors’ top new concerns: Are streaming services, especially Netflix, starting to cannibalize traditional TV viewing? Viacom’s Nickelodeon is a SpongeBob in the coal mine on this issue. Ratings for Nick’s target audience have dropped steeply since the fall, and were down 29% in Q1. If ratings on ad-supported TV shows are falling because kids are watching SpongeBob Square Pants, iCarly, and other shows on Netflix, then Viacom probably would have to give up the streaming deals that have done so much to improve its financial results. CEO Philippe Dauman believes that he can continue to have his cake and eat it too. He says Netflix has ”a minimal impact” on Nickelodeon: Its kids audience would only account for 2% of Nick’s TV viewing. Disney’s Bob Iger seems to share that view. “We have not seen any negative impact from the presence of Disney Channel shows on these new platforms,” he says. (Bernstein Research’s Todd Juenger — who vigorously argues that Netflix has hurt Nickelodeon — says that Iger has little to lose from palling up with Netflix on this issue because Disney Channel doesn’t sell ads.) But Time Warner’s Jeff Bewkes disagrees. Cartoon Network was up 14%, he said, in part because “we don’t have our program sitting on (a streaming) service where parents can park their kids….Obviously, that’s taking some viewing away from some of the other animated channels.” We’ll hear more about this over the next several months, especially if there’s any sign that streaming is endangering traditional sitcoms and dramas.
Here are some of the other themes from the Q1 season:
Movies: Total box office sales were +20.5% in Q1 vs the same period last year. Attendance was up. Ticket prices were up. Concession spending was up. Lionsgate’s The Hunger Games emerged as a huge new franchise. In short, it was a great time to be a theater owner. But they still have to figure out what to do with their cash. Studios are lobbying for them to invest in technologies that will improve the movie-going experience. For example, Warner Bros wants them to pay for digital projection software upgrades so they can show movies at 48-frames per second vs the current 24 frames. That could become a big deal this Christmas when director Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is available in the smoother-looking projection speed. But theater circuits also see an opportunity to grow by snapping up small venues with owners who couldn’t afford to convert to digital projection. “By the end of this year, we estimate that approximately 65% of domestic industry screens will have been converted to digital and major studios will begin to plan for the eventual end of 35 millimeter prints,” Regal Entertainment CEO Amy Miles says. “We believe that these factors combined with the healthy box office environment provide a good backdrop for M&A activity in the near-term.”
As for the studios, Disney had to take its lumps for the John Carter debacle, although few seemed to care following the huge success of Marvel’s The Avengers. Paramount’s lighter release schedule included The Devil Inside, A Thousand Words, and Jeff, Who Lives At Home and generated less revenues than last year’s True Grit and Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, but the unit recorded higher profits. Fox performed well with help from Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked and The Descendants – but the company warned that the current quarter will look less attractive. News Corp will have to record costs for its big June releases, Prometheus and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, before most of the revenues pour in, and the films may not compare well to last year’s Rio and X-Men: First Class. Time Warner in Q1 recorded box office revenues for Sherlock Holmes 2, but not the costs for the December release. The company’s Journey 2 and Project X did better than expected, although DVD sales were just meh. And although Sony had a hit early this year with 21 Jump Street, revenues were up and operating income was down mostly due to changes in television; the company seemed more interested in having investors look ahead to releases including The Amazing Spider-Man, Men in Black 3 and the upcoming James Bond film Skyfall.
Ad Sales: Moguls who harbor any concerns about the market would be nuts to openly admit that on the eve of the annual upfront advertising sales frenzy. That said, their descriptions of the environment were pretty consistent: it’s good, but not sensational. Most seemed to agree with CBS’ Les Moonves‘ view that “the marketplace clearly has gotten a lot stronger” in Q1 than it was in Q4. He says that ads in the scatter market are selling for rates that were more than 10% higher than they were in last year’s upfront. Discovery says that scatter prices are “well above” the last upfront, and predicts its U.S. ad sales will be up “high single digit” in Q2. Scripps Networks says scatter prices are up high teens to mid-20s over last year’s upfront, and the current quarter’s scatter pricing is up mid single digits from Q1. Auto companies, which account for about 20% of TV ads, are leading the way. But food, consumer packaged goods, financial, and retail are also contributing.
Pay TV. Recalling a line from a favorite old Monty Python routine, Bernstein Research analyst Craig Moffett says distributors who recently seemed so vulnerable to cord cutting are “not dead yet.” They collectively gained 422,000 customers in Q1. (Phone company video services were +375,000, satellite +185,000, and cable -137,000.) Still they seem to be on a collision course with pay TV programmers. Just about every network owner told investors to look forward to hefty price increases. For example, Time Warner’s Bewkes says that “the rate increases that we’re getting now are higher than the rate increases that we got before. And we have every intention to try to get our networks closer to where we believe fair value is going forward.” Discovery’s David Zaslav says that “we have a good hand” to negotiate higher rates, especially for the OWN joint venture with Oprah Winfrey. And Viacom’s Dauman says investors can “confidently plan” on high single digit growth rates “for the foreseeable future.” But distributors say that they can’t keep raising consumer prices — or cutting their own profits — which means something has to give. “It’s very difficult,” DirecTV’s Michael White said. “It’s forcing distributors to have to take a very hard look at low-rated channels…and look for ways to economize for our customers who are having trouble affording all this content.” Charter CEO Tom Rutledge echoed that view, saying that programming is “a difficult part of the business to manage from a cost perspective.” And Dish Network‘s Ergen — who plans to drop AMC Networks in June — says the time is coming for someone to offer fewer channels at a lower price. “Most customers have four providers to choose from who all sell exactly the same thing.” If someone offers a cheaper but smaller package, it “may be disruptive short term.” Still, he says, “a lot of things can go on over the next year or so in the programming side.”