Time Warner Fourth-Quarter Earnings Beat Expectations Thanks to 'Westworld,' 'Fantastic Beasts'

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Jeff Bewkes

The entertainment group, led by chairman and CEO Jeff Bewkes, also saw CNN's election coverage boost its latest quarterly financials.

Time Warner on Wednesday reported better-than-expected fourth-quarter earnings before the opening bell.

The corporate parent of Warner Bros., HBO and the Turner networks posted an adjusted earnings per-share of $1.25, excluding some items, up 12 percent from the year-ago quarter.

And overall revenue at $7.89 billion was up 11 percent from a year-earlier $7 billion.

Reuters' analyst estimates forecast an earnings per share of $1.19 and overall revenues of $7.72 billion.

The conglomerate, which is led by chairman and CEO Jeff Bewkes and has agreed to be acquired by telecom giant AT&T, at CNN saw Donald Trump's flame-throwing U.S. presidential campaign become a ratings boon for the cable network as it reached a climax in November. That led fourth-quarter operating income to jump 25 percent to $1.8 billion.

"With the historic presidential election behind us, and the new administration in place, we have every confidence that CNN will continue to reinforce its reputation as not only the source the world turns to for trusted news coverage, but also as a destination for compelling original series and documentaries," Bewkes told analysts during a morning call.

He added the deal to be acquired by AT&T, unveiled in October, "will accelerate our efforts to spur innovation in the media industry and further strengthen our businesses." Bewkes said Time Warner expects to close the transaction later this year amid continuing speculation about how the Trump administration will weigh the $85.4 billion deal on the regulatory front.

Trump opposed the AT&T deal for Time Warner during the recent election campaign.

The Warner Bros. division, which saw box-office gains from titles like J.K. Rowling's Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Ben Affleck-starrer The Accountant, posted quarterly revenues of $3.86 billion, up 17 percent from a year-earlier $3.3 billion. Warner Bros. also posted higher TV revenues due to raised licensing income and increased production.

Turner revenue rose to $2.83 billion, against $2.66 billion in 2015, due to a bump in subscription revenues that offset lower advertising income and hit TBS titles like Full Frontal With Samantha Bee.

And HBO, where the first season of the sci-fi series Westworld averaged 13 million viewers and became a momentum builder for the network beyond Game of Thrones and Veep, saw revenue rise 6 percent to $1.49 billion, again because of higher subscription revenues.

Time Warner execs during the morning call responded to many questions about their digital plans, especially with its content increasingly included in over-the-top streaming packages, as the conglomerate looks to a future beyond theatrical and pay TV revenues.

HBO currently has 2 million domestic streaming subscribers, with minimal cannibalization of existing subscribers, Time Warner CFO John Martin insisted. Bewkes added his company is building, where possible, global brands like CNN and HBO as consumers everywhere embrace individual series or network brands.  

"We've essentially tried to capitalize on these SVOD and linear network opportunities, going global in terms of territory and going digital in terms of VOD, cross-platforms and mobile devices," he argued. Bewkes said consumers in India and Brazil, for example, view video content on different platforms.

So Time Warner initially uses available distribution in any market, before possibly going direct to consumers. Here HBO goes direct to consumer in some markets, and continues to license content to existing SVODs in other territories, for example. And Turner and Criterion created a streaming service for film lovers, FilmStruck, and Warner Bros. has an Asian-focused streaming service, Drama Fever.

"Everybody that has programming and can support a network will try to create optimal reach, and to the extent you can fill it out to a full network, that's a valuable asset," Bewkes asserted.

Feb. 8, 9:30 a.m.: Updated with comments by senior Time Warner executives during the analyst call to discuss their latest financial results.

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