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Big Media 3Q Corporate Earnings Roundup: Are CEOs Really Worried About Recession? Or Just Looking For Convenient Excuse?

Three months ago, when Big Media CEOs wrapped up their 2Q earnings, they were still relentlessly upbeat about the business. Any worries about the economy? Not then. But the messages they delivered over the past few weeks, as they discussed 3Q, were different. Although they’re still optimistic — remember, they’re paid to be salesmen — now and then you could hear expressions of concern about where things are headed. It stood out when Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman noted that “ad sales growth will face some headwinds.” Other CEOs who are known for speaking bluntly warned that other shocks may bedevil the business. For example, Dish Network Chairman Charlie Ergen said that his satellite company — and others in pay TV — have to fight harder against rising programming costs because “there’s a limit to the price increases that could be passed on to consumers.” Time Warner Cable CEO Glenn Britt warned that premium channels such as HBO, Showtime and Starz “are clearly impacted by the economy as consumers try to cut back.” Either they’re genuinely worried, or they want a scapegoat to blame for things that are going bad, or may soon do so. Whatever the case, we can expect to hear a lot more about the economy when it’s time for the post-mortem on the all-important 4Q earnings.

As for industry performance matters, parents of movie studios had their usual mixed results to brag about or explain away: Time Warner benefitted from Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 2. Viacom was up on Transformers: Dark Of The Moon. And News Corp beat its chest about Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes and X-Men: First Class. But Disney’s Cars 2 was no match for last year’s Toy Story 3. Comcast’s Universal Pictures had nothing to compare to last year’s Despicable Me. Lionsgate suffered from Conan The Barbarian and Warrior. And DreamWorks Animation’s Kung Fu Panda 2 didn’t contribute as much in the quarter as Shrek Forever After did in the same period last year.

Over at the TV networks, Comcast’s NBC underperformed the Street’s already modest expectations. Execs at almost all the companies were eager to talk about the cash they expect to collect soon from political ads — as well as their favorite new ATM machines: retransmission consent deals and digital streamers including Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix. Speaking of Netflix, CEO Reed Hastings once again tried to reassure investors that he’s focused on “building back our reputation and brand strength” after his decision in July to slap a 60% price increase on customers who wanted to continue to rent DVDs and stream videos. In 3Q Netflix lost 57.7% of its market value and 800,000 subscribers. And since that customer loss was bigger than projected, Netflix shares continued to fall — they’re now down 67.3% since July 1.

Here are some other themes from the latest earnings reports:

Ad sales: They’s good, but for how long? Most television networks report that scatter prices are comfortably above the upfront market from this past summer. CBS chief Les Moonves says prices in 4Q are up by “mid-teens” on a percentage basis, while Discovery says it sees least high single digit percentages. But Disney’s Bob Iger noted that scatter prices have “slowed slightly these last few weeks.” Kurt Hall of National CineMedia — the leading seller of ads in movie theaters — was far more direct when he spoke to analysts after ratcheting down his company’s financial forecasts. “I’m sure that the broadcast and cable guys are sitting there now counting their lucky stars they got their upfront done before August,” he told analysts. “There’s a lot of uncertainty.” Read More »

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Regal Beats 3Q Estimates With Record Attendance And Cost Cuts

The exhibition company’s per-share earnings of 16 cents narrowly beat the 15 cents that analysts expected. But the 3Q revenues of $743.6M, up 6.8% from the period last year, were well ahead of the $729.2M forecast. Net income came in at $25M, down from $42.6M last year — but that included a $31.4M one-time gain from the sale of stock in National CineMedia. “We are pleased that industry attendance growth combined with our continued focus on cost control allowed us to achieve significant growth in both adjusted EBITDA and adjusted EBITDA margin for the second consecutive quarter,” CEO Amy Miles said. She added that the company is “encouraged by the record summer box office and remain(s) optimistic regarding the upcoming holiday film slate.” In addition to the earnings news, Regal declared a cash dividend of 21 cents a share that it will pay on December 16 to stockholders of record on December 7. Regal says that it “intends to pay a regular quarterly dividend for the foreseeable future.”

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3D Glasses Shakedown: Will Audiences End Up Paying If Studios Won’t?

Sony Responds To NATO’s Claim That New 3D Glasses Plan Is Myopic

The battle lines are starting to harden around who’ll pay for those lame-looking 3D glasses. I’ve learned that other studios might line up behind Sony’s decision to stop paying the average 50-cents a pair fee beginning in May. Rival studios tell me Fox is on board. “We’re studying our options, but haven’t made any decisions yet,” denied Fox Filmed Entertainment spokesman Chris Petrikin. Remember, Fox was first in line to try to stop paying for glasses back in 2009 when it released Ice Age. But then had to abandon that effort after theaters rebelled. Sony was technically correct today when it said in a statement that “there never has been” a formal agreement stipulating that studios would shoulder the cost of 3D glasses. But it’s easy to understand why exhibitors are stunned by Sony’s stoppage. Because it changes an understanding that’s been in place since 2005 when Disney’s Chicken Little kicked off the 3D movie phenom.

“It is a radical departure from what the practice has been,” National Association of Theater Owners President John Fithian tells me. Now Regal CEO Amy Miles warns that if studios end the practice then it could “result in fewer screens exhibiting 3D films”. That’s bad news for Hollywood, which plans to release 39 films in 3D next year, vs. 36 in 2011. Exhibitors might encourage consumers to bring their own 3D glasses. That may be the future anyway. But BTIG analyst Rich Greenfield says if theaters require payment for 3D specs on top of the typical 3D surcharge ($3.25 to $4 a ticket), then “the U.S. moviegoer will reject this as another way for exhibitors to milk them and further decrease their interest in 3D (and perhaps going to the movies in general)”.

The fight is over glasses manufactured for RealD which it, in turn, supplies them to theaters. RealD’s stock price was down -14.7% today on the Sony news. The 3D tech company won’t disclose Read More »

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Big Media’s 2Q Earnings Roundup: Will The Economy Change The Story?

Now that Big Media’s 2Q earnings season is over, the big question on Wall Street is: Did it give us any insight into the future? CEOs’ cheery talk about strong ad sales in TV’s upfront market, the expected bump next year from political ads, and the revenues coming in from online streaming services may be irrelevant if the economy sinks into a deep, new recession.  CEOs say they see no evidence of trouble yet. The industry’s leading cheerleader, CBS chief Les Moonves, channeled his inner Buzz Lightyear last week saying that he has “every reason to believe that we will deliver strong results throughout the rest of the year, into 2012 and beyond.” Investors still sliced 6.3% off of CBS’ market value. The Dow Jones U.S. Media Index is down about 16% in the last month as traders anticipate cuts in ad spending, ticket buying, subscriptions — the works. If the pessimists are right, then the race is on: Which company will be the first to change its message from “people will buy media because they have cash” to “people will buy media because it helps them to forget their problems”?

Here are other themes from the latest earnings reports:

Jobs: Media companies still aren’t hiring. No one said that so baldly, but it’s there between the lines: CEOs talked more about financial engineering – cutting costs and returning cash to shareholders – than about spending to become more competitive. Time Warner recorded $24M in layoff-related expenses, quadruple the amount from the same quarter last year, while Viacom spent $14M, up from zero last year. Yet virtually every media company is repurchasing shares or increasing its dividend. The message? CEOs can’t persuade investors that the companies know how to make a decent profit from their cash, and shareholders want it back.

Pay TV: This was “the weakest (quarter) in the industry’s history,” says Bernstein Research’s Craig Moffett. Analysts were startled to see the largest cable, satellite, and telco companies collectively lose about 195,000 video customers. The cord cutters don’t fit the stereotype of well-to-do technophiles. Moffett says that “all the evidence” shows that a growing number of people – especially young adults — simply can’t afford pay TV. Dish Network seemed to confirm that thesis by saying that it will shift its marketing focus to upscale consumers instead of bargain hunters. With the U.S. market stalled, it’s easy to see why cable programmers want investors to look at their expansion efforts in growing markets overseas such as India, Russia, China, and Brazil. “It is the current momentum and potential of our international assets that present a meaningful, unique opportunity for us,” Discovery Communications CEO David Zaslav told analysts. Read More »

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Regal Entertainment Cost-Cutting Delivers Better Than Expected 2Q Profits On Light Revenue Growth

Regal reported 2Q net profits of $34.8M, up from $4.8M in the same period last year on revenues of $519.3M, up 2.6%. Earnings at 24 cents a share exceeded the 19 cents expected by analysts who follow the company. But they also expected the theater chain to generate as much as $762.1M in revenues. Regal CEO Amy Miles credits “our focus on cost control” for helping to improve profits. She adds that the company is “encouraged by the early third quarter box office results and the prospects for the remainder of the year.” Regal also declared a 21 cents a share dividend and says it “intends to pay a regular quarterly dividend for the foreseeable future.”

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Regal Entertainment Reports 1Q Loss

Regal Entertainment Group, the nation’s largest exhibition chain, reported first-quarter results that were down across the board compared with last year. Revenue for the quarter ended March 31 was $570.9 million, compared with $719.8 million in 2010. Much like fellow exhibitor IMAX’s sluggish first-quarter results reported earlier in the day, Regal CEO Amy Miles cited “a challenging first-quarter box office environment” as reason for the decline, and also like IMAX is looking to summer tentpoles to regain momentum. The Regal board did announce a cash dividend of $0.21 per Class A and Class B share as part of what the company plans to be a regulary quarterly offering.

In March, Regal partnered with fellow big chain AMC to create Open Road, a venture headed by Tom Ortenberg that will acquire and distribute films that can play in wide release on about 2000 screens.

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