Entertainment Earnings Season: What Analysts Are Optimistic (or Worried) About

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Box-office trends were positive at many companies, but foreign-exchange trends continued to weigh on results.

Hollywood conglomerates will start reporting their latest quarterly earnings this week amid somewhat improved advertising market trends and mostly stronger box-office results, but also continued TV ratings and foreign-exchange challenges.

Overall, analysts expect companies to report results that are better than initially expected as quarterly earnings estimates have risen in recent weeks. That has made some on Wall Street slightly more bullish on entertainment stocks going into earnings season, while many remain cautious amid changing TV viewing and soft advertising trends, as well as weak foreign currencies, which cause foreign revenue to translate into lower dollar amounts.

Macquarie Securities analyst Tim Nollen on Monday raised his earnings estimates on big TV network owners, saying: “We believe the TV ad market strengthened in the first quarter” thanks to strengthening scatter market sales and some ratings improvements.

“TV companies are more actively selling inventory on a cross-platform basis, combining various measurement services with their own digital streaming data to finally begin to monetize the shift in eyeballs to more screens,” he explained.

In contrast, Sanford C. Bernstein analyst Todd Juenger said in the headline of a recent report: “Better than expected doesn’t mean better.” “We expect management [teams] to portray advertising as being "in transition,” which allows them to keep near-term expectations low but promise a bright future,” he explained. “We don't buy in because every future scenario we conceive is deflationary compared to the existing business.”

Others caution that Wall Street will need more time until turning more positive on entertainment stocks again.

“For the first time in a long time, we are raising quarterly earnings estimates for the majority of media companies under our coverage,” MoffettNathanson analyst Michael Nathanson said in a recent report. “After a terrible end to 2014, the main driver of the improved outlook is slightly better growth in domestic advertising at cable and some select broadcast networks. That said, we will have to wait until the second quarter to see if the first quarter’s somewhat better results are a false positive sign or if advertising trends can keep improving for those with a more stable ratings hand.”

And Evercore ISI analyst Vijay Jayant wrote in a recent report that advertising, “which had been sliding in the second half of 2014, appears to have stabilized,” but also highlighted: “Thematically, investors are more focused on OTT evolution's effects on the TV ecosystem than foreign exchange and advertising.”

Most major studio owners recorded positive box-office momentum in the first quarter. Most “were in positive territory this quarter, with only two – Universal and Sony – suffering declines,” said Juenger.
 
Nathanson highlighted “sequentially improving ratings at Disney and Time Warner’s cable networks, as well as CBS and ABC broadcast networks,” but added: “However, the ratings news was not all bright as the tough Olympics [comparisons] crushed results at NBC and NBCUniversal cable networks, while Viacom, A&E Networks and Fox’s cable networks struggled.”

And many see recent launches of over-the-top services as a possible longer-term threat to TV networks units’ carriage fee growth, making CEO commentary on such services one key focus for investor this earnings season.

Here is a look at analysts’ expectations for key companies.

Time Warner
The entertainment conglomerate, led by CEO Jeffrey Bewkes, will open first-quarter earnings season for Hollywood biggies on Wednesday and is expected to post higher earnings before many other sector biggies are expected to record weaker results than in the year-ago period.

Thomas Weisel Partners analyst Benjamin Mogil said that “advertising trends/ratings will be key” to the earnings report and management call, highlighting that “ratings at TBS and CNN have been gaining momentum, while TNT remains weak.”

He slightly increased his estimates for the quarter as American Sniper outperformed industry expectations. “Warners (+22 percent) had the highest box-office take for the quarter, primarily due to the phenomenal success of American Sniper, partially offset by the phenomenal disappointment of Jupiter Ascending,” wrote Juenger. “Warners grew double-digits despite facing a difficult comp from the prior-year releases of The Lego Movie and 300: Rise of an Empire.”

Nathanson predicts 1 percent Turner ad sales growth for the first quarter, led by a 2 percent U.S. gain, mostly offset by a drop in international ad sales due to foreign-currency headwinds. He also projects higher HBO results thanks in part to another Amazon SVOD content deal payment.

On the conference call, Wall Street will listen for latest management commentary on HBO Now, advertising and ratings trends and the abandoned Comcast-Time Warner Cable deal.

UBS analyst Doug Mitchelson said questions could also include: “now that AT&T/DirecTV will be the largest [pay TV operator], can Comcast pricing [for Time Warner networks’ affiliate fees] be driven higher than expected” when the current carriage deal comes up for renewal at the end of the year and the “impact from cord cutting/skinny bundles on affiliate fee revenue.”

Mogil predicts lower first-quarter revenue of $7.0 billion, adjusted operating profit of $1.74 billion and earnings per share of $1.10.

He expects adjusted operating profit for Turner to rise from $895 million in the year-ago period to $987 million and for HBO to rise from $464 million to $521 million. But he projects Warner Bros.’s adjusted operating profit to drop slightly.

Viacom
Viacom, led by CEO Philippe Dauman, will follow with its latest quarterly results on Thursday morning.

Dauman has said Viacom was looking for its recent restructuring moves to result in $350 million in annual savings. Viacom has laid off staff at many of its units, particularly in the advertising sales department, and brought networks like TV Land and CMT into its kids and family group.

Faced with challenges on the ratings and advertising fronts, Viacom launched a company-wide review across its media networks, film and corporate functions. For the layoffs, Viacom has announced a $785 million pre-tax charge.

“Nickelodeon did moderately better on ratings during the quarter, regaining the top spot amongst total day viewers in five of the nine weeks in February and March,” Nollen said. “We also now factor in margin upside from Viacom’s restructuring effort…with $175 million of cost savings achieved this year including some in the March quarter.”

On the film side, Viacom’s key theatrical releases this quarter included The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water and Hot Tub Time Machine 2. Nathanson said the company’s Paramount studio saw its U.S. box office in the quarter rise 2.3 percent over the year-ago period.
 
Mogil forecasts higher quarterly revenue of $3.3 billion and operating profit of $784 million, or $1.03 in earnings per share, down from the year-ago period.

“With the company detailing its restructuring plans prior to the earnings call and the well documented challenges with advertising trends/measurement, we expect the company to comment on recent digital app launches and potential M&A in the digital space to re-accelerate growth,” Mogil said about what to expect on the Viacom earnings call.

Walt Disney
Disney CEO Robert Iger and his team will present the company’s latest financials on May 5.

Nathanson predicts stronger ABC network results and weaker TV stations figures, leading to total broadcasting unit operating profit growth. Meanwhile, Disney’s cable networks unit will see higher sports costs being a drag on the division’s quarterly profit, he forecasts.

Disney film results could drop though in the latest quarter despite higher U.S. box office thanks to Cinderella and Into the Woods, according to analysts. Theme parks operating earnings are expected to grow amid improved attendance and pricing, according to analysts. And consumer products results will rise driven by Cinderella merchandise and continued Frozen sales.

Overall, Mogil expects higher quarterly Disney revenue of $12.3 billion on operating earnings of $3.16 billion and $1.10 earnings per share, down slightly.

On the earnings conference call, any comment on Dish’s SlingTV and “potential migration down from traditional services would be of interest,” Mogil said. “Also of interest will be an update with regards to the opening of Shanghai Disney in early 2016.”

Added Juenger: “Disney will be the first to report of our covered companies who have publically objected to Verizon's new "unbundled" offering. So listeners will be paying close attention to how Disney portrays the
dispute.”

21st Century Fox
The company, led by chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch, will report its earnings on May 6.

Nathanson has recently reduced his profit forecasts, citing “worse currency headwinds.” He lowered his cable networks unit forecast slightly and said it “swung back to negative territory” in the ratings, with FX and National Geographic lower, “partially offset by strong growth from the rebranding at FXX and Fox Sports 1 and 2 ratings.”

The real bottom-line hit is expected at the company’s international networks though, with Nathanson citing “the worse currency trends and the stepped-up costs from the Cricket World Cup impacting Star Sports” in India.

The analyst also highlighted the “difficult comparisons” for the Fox broadcasting unit with the Super Bowl last year, which he estimated generated $150 million in profits on $350 million in revenue for Fox.

However, Nathanson predicts higher film unit profitability, citing “the successful theatrical release” of Kingsman: The Secret Service.

“Fox (+61 percent) experienced the highest percentage gain of the major studios, but grossed the second-most behind Warners,” said Juenger about the latest quarter. “Fox benefited from the release of more major films this year than last and an Oscar boost to Birdman. The studio also faced an easy comp against last year's slate, which featured the poorly performing Walter Mitty. Kingsman and Taken 3 both performed well this quarter.” Added Nathanson: “While Taken 3 underperformed in the U.S., it has made up for it with strong international numbers.”

Overall, “we have expected guidance will be lowered materially, but just due to foreign-exchange [issues], with healthier stock performance thereafter due to still strong LT growth prospects,” said Mitchelson.

Mogil projects lower revenue of $6.9 billion, operating income before depreciation and amortization of $1.63 billion and earnings of 38 cents per share, down from 47 cents.

“With Empire completing its successful first season run, we expect the company to talk about its upcoming programming slate,” said Mogil. “Additionally, our ad agency channel checks noted that Fox’s pre-upfront presentation was much better than in previous years, noting more breadth than just American Idol, which we view as boding well for the upfronts.”

CBS Corp.
CBS Corp., led by CEO Leslie Moonves, will close out first-quarter earnings season on May 7.

Mogil and others predict weaker revenue and operating profit at the core entertainment business and cable networks units.

Mitchelson said he recently trimmed his financial forecasts “mainly due to lower CBS Network ad revenue as we layered in [the] near-final total C3 A18-49 ratings and commercial time, which were -7 percent and -2 percent year-over-year, respectively.”

On the radio side, “sector sources are suggesting that local advertising finished the quarter softer, and we trimmed our radio ad estimate” for CBS, said Mitchelson.

Overall, Mogil estimates lower revenue of $3.5 billion, operating income of $698 million and earnings per share of 74 cents, down from 78 cents in the year-ago period.

“Investors will largely focus on the company's ability to convert strong ratings into strong scatter pricing/demand,” he said about what to look out for on the call. “Also of interest to investors, given the recent launch of HBO Now, is any more details on an almost assured Showtime OTT offering.” Plus, any commentary on the upcoming upfront ad market will be closely followed.


 

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