Hollywood Giants Gear up for Earnings Reports as Stocks Lag Market

10:40 AM PST 04/21/2014 by Georg Szalai
The success of "Frozen" has led analysts to increase their earnings expectations for the Walt Disney Co.

‎First-quarter box-office trends were solid, but "if you weren't NBC, you faced an uphill ratings battle versus the Winter Olympics,"‎ says one analyst.

Solid box office, but TV ratings challenges amid NBC's Winter Olympics coverage were key first-quarter trends that will affect the latest earnings reports of Hollywood conglomerates, according to analysts.

"If you weren't NBC, you faced an uphill ratings battle versus the Winter Olympics," wrote ISI Media analyst Vijay Jayant in a recent report. "CBS and ABC had a challenging ratings quarter compounding the season's trend due largely to not having the SuperBowl this year‎."

But he added: "The quarter was characterized by broad-based, solid performance of theatrical releases (every major studio had at least one film that generated more than $100 million globally).‎"

The quarterly earnings parade of entertainment giants will start with NBCUniversal owner Comcast on Tuesday.

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‎The earnings reports come at a time when Wall Street has started discussing whether investors have lost some faith in entertainment stocks given that they underperformed the broader market in the first three months of the year after outperforming in recent years. Earnings season will give CEOs a chance to highlight their confidence and discuss their latest financial expectations, while investors will look for any factors providing upside opportunity or downside risk.

"With the first quarter now behind us, it’s clear that after four years of massive multiple expansion, the market has fallen out of love with the broader media sector," MoffettNathanson analyst Michael Nathanson wrote in mid-April. "The reality is that, at some point, we needed positive earnings revisions, not continual asset re-valuation, to drive these equities higher."

He added: "In the near-term, there doesn’t seem to be broad scope or reasons for raising earnings per share estimates." For the latest quarter, he only materially raised estimates at Disney "to better reflect the success of Frozen," while leaving other estimates unchanged or reducing them.

Guggenheim Securities analyst Michael Morris remains bullish though. "Media shares have significantly underperformed the market year-to-date (7 percent relative underperformance versus the S&P 500), which we believe provides an attractive opportunity for investors," he wrote. "Many content media companies have a unique combination of asset scarcity value, pricing power and revenue visibility. A softer consumer environment and the potential for distributor consolidation have stoked fears, but we still see opportunities for above-market growth through 2016."

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Growth concerns could also be voiced ahead of the upfront television advertising sales season, he suggested. "However, we don’t see negative rhetoric ahead of the upfront as indicative of an inflection point in long-term advertising trends," Morris concluded.

In terms of stock picks, he said "we remain attracted to companies with exposure to several key characteristics: retransmission consent fees, international channels/content footprints and scarce content assets (entertainment and long-term sports programming rights)." In that context, he called 21st Century Fox, Walt Disney and CBS Corp. his top picks.

‎Here is a look at what to expect from Hollywood conglomerates' quarterly earnings reports:

Comcast/NBCUniversal

Jayant expects solid figures for Comcast's cable systems when the company reports its first-quarter results before the market open on Tuesday.

"Their NBCUniversal division also had a strong quarter in most of its segments, thanks in large part to the Winter Olympics, with NBC number 1 among broadcasters for five weeks and the USA Network number 1 among cable networks for the quarter," he wrote.

"The Sochi Winter Games should have a considerable effect on headline results," said Wunderlich Securities analyst Matthew Harrigan in a report on Monday. He anticipates a 21.5 percent revenue gain at NBCUniversal driven by the Olympics with an accompanying 12.3 percent increase in operating cash flow.

Comcast investors, meanwhile, remain focused on the regulatory approval process for the planned Time Warner Cable acquisition though, which is likely to draw questions on the earnings conference call. Observers will also look out for how Comcast's cable systems performed after returning to video subscriber growth in the fourth quarter. Management may also share some details on how profitable the Winter Olympics in Sochi were.

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Time Warner

The conglomerate, led by CEO Jeff Bewkes, reports its latest financials on Wednesday, April 30.

Wells Fargo analyst Marci Ryvicker‎ expects first-quarter earnings of 88 cents per share. "We modestly raised our estimates with increases to HBO (for the consolidation of HBO Asia and Nordic) outpacing cuts at Turner (lowered ad revenue to +5 percent from 6 percent on soft ratings)," she recently wrote.

Stifel, Nicolaus analyst Drew Crum said that Warner Bros. will drive the earnings growth in the latest quarter. "Theatrical revenue should be up significantly (estimated 66 percent to $538 million) on higher global box office receipts (estimated +65 percent to $1.18 billion)," he wrote.

Key film titles during the period included The Lego Movie, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and 300: Rise of An Empire.

Crum projects a 3 percent gain in TV licensing revenue and a 4 percent‎ home entertainment revenue drop amid "expected softness for catalog titles, partially offset by new releases (Gravity, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug)."

Management is also expected to give an updated on the planned Time Inc. spin-off later this quarter. Analysts also expect the focus on the conference call to be on ratings and updates on the carriage fee growth outlook.

Viacom

The owner of Paramount Pictures, MTV, Nickelodeon and Comedy Central, among others, will report its latest financials on Thursday, May 1.

"While ratings were better than peers, Viacom was also hit by one-offs (weather and a shift of films into its third fiscal quarter), so we cut advertising to +3 percent from +4 percent," Ryvicker said. "That said, we raised equity income and lowered interest, which boosted our quarterly earnings per share by 2 cents." She expects $1.04 in earnings per share now.

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Paramount films released in the quarter included Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, as well as Noah at the very end of the period. The Wolf of Wall Street, released at the end of 2013, also continued to contribute in the latest quarter.

Management, led by CEO Philippe Dauman, is expected to face questions on the company's ratings and ad outlook, as well as possible deals. The company has been in the running for U.K. broadcaster Channel 5.

Walt Disney

‎Disney will report its latest quarterly earnings on Tuesday, May 6.

Several analysts have increased their expectations, many citing the global success of animated hit Frozen. Said Jayant: "Disney's Frozen carryover box office and home entertainment release was a large profit driver."

Ryvicker‎ said she "substantially raised revenue, operating and earnings per share estimates, led by networks (strength from A&E is likely under the radar), parks (early ticket price increase) and film (Frozen in theaters and home video).‎"

Crum predicts "profit improvement across all segments led by media networks and studio entertainment" and revenue of$11.26 billion, up 7 percent. His estimates include a 6 percent revenue gain at the studio unit, 6 percent in cable TV, 2 percent in broadcast TV and 5 percent at the theme parks division.

Ryvicker expects the company, led by CEO Bob Iger, to post quarterly earnings of 96 cents per share. "We expect another solid quarter from Disney, which we think is the one to watch this earnings season," she said. 

21st  Century Fox

Rupert Murdoch's company reports earnings on Wednesday, May 7.

‎Ryvicker projects earnings per share of 35 cents. "We slightly took down our revenue and [operating cash flow estimates] on a tougher Olympics and soft ratings at Fox (American Idol)," she said.‎ "The only notable adjustment were a cut in network and station advertising to -5 percent and -2 percent from flat for both, although not material to our bottom line.".

Film releases in the quarter included Son of God and DreamWorks Animation's Mr. Peabody & Sherman.

On the earnings call, analysts will listen out for comments on the progress of new cable networks, such as FXX and Fox Sports 1. The company may also highlight the elevations of James Murdoch from deputy COO to co-COO and Lachlan Murdoch from board member to co-chairman.

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CBS Corp.

While Sony Corp. will close out entertainment conglomerates' earnings season on Wednesday, May 14, ‎the earnings parade of U.S. Hollywood giants will be wrapped up by CBS Corp. on Thursday, May 8.

Ryvicker expects earnings of 73 cents per share. ‎"We lowered first-quarter revenue a touch on tough comps due to the Olympics, Super Bowl, NCAA Tournament and a rough winter," she wrote in a recent report. "We cut core advertising to -2 percent from +1 percent, but slightly raised operating income before depreciation and amortization on lower programming costs. Importantly, the comps were mostly one-offs, and ratings have improved."

She also expects the company's earnings to accelerate throughout the year.

‎During the earnings call, CEO Leslie Moonves and his team are likely to be asked about the next steps following the IPO of the company's outdoor ad business and the outlook for this year's upfront ad market.

E-mail: Georg.Szalai@THR.com
Twitter: @georgszalai

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