Viacom, the owner of Paramount Pictures and such cable networks as MTV, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central and BET, on Thursday reported better-than-expected fiscal third-quarter earnings.
The company, led by CEO Bob Bakish, posted adjusted earnings from continuing operations of $475 million, or $1.18 per share, compared with $471 million, or $1.17 per share, in the year-ago period. Wall Street had on average projected earnings of $1.07 a share.
The company's results benefited from cost cutting as selling, general and administrative expenses dropped, while programming spending was up. The lower costs helped offset a 4 percent revenue drop in the quarter to $3.2 billion.
Bakish, in a statement that accompanied his latest financial results, said Viacom "concluded a strong advertising upfront that combined robust price increases, as well as improved packaging that included increased demand for our advanced marketing solutions."
Film unit operating profit rose to $44 million in the latest quarter from $9 million in the year-ago period even though film revenue was down 9 percent from the same period last year, which had benefited from the international performance of Transformers: The Last Knight. The company lauded the "strong performance of current-quarter releases A Quiet Place and Book Club," lower operating expenses, as well as a 35 percent increase in licensing revenue "primarily due to the release of Paramount Television product, including the second season of 13 Reasons Why."
Analysts in recent weeks increased their film unit earnings forecasts on the success of A Quiet Place and Book Club, which both had small budgets but performed well. But they also reduced estimates for the media networks division amid weaker Nickelodeon ratings and pressure on the currency of Argentina, where the company owns the network Telefe.
Most analysts expected a 2 to 3 percent U.S. advertising revenue drop in the company’s TV networks division for the latest quarter. On the positive side, affiliate fees have come in ahead of Wall Street expectations, and MTV and other networks have posted improved ratings.
Viacom's latest quarterly results showed an 8 percent TV networks unit drop in adjusted operating income to $799 million driven by a 2 percent revenue decline. Worldwide advertising revenue fell 4 percent, with a 3 percent U.S. drop and a 4 percent international decline, while affiliate revenue was down 3 percent.
Discussing U.S. ad results, Viacom highlighted that they were "reflecting lower linear impressions, partially offset by higher pricing and growth in Advanced Marketing Solutions revenues."
Overall, Viacom said that its Media Networks unit "increased its momentum with growth in television share, significant gains in digital consumption and live event attendance, sequential improvement in domestic affiliate revenue growth and savings from cost transformation initiatives."
Viacom recently agreed to acquire youth media company Awesomeness for $25 million, add to a growing roster of digital brands.
On a morning earnings call, Bakish did not address directly Viacom's parent company, National Amusement, led by Shari Redstone, eyeing a possible merger of his company with CBS, which has prompted a legal battle with the TV network group. A recent report in The New Yorker about sexual misconduct allegations against Leslie Moonves, the CEO of sibling company CBS Corp., has prompted speculation that Viacom and National Amusements could renew a push for a recombination of the two companies.
"We're not going to comment on any specific M&A activity on Viacom," Bakish said at one point during the call. But he lost no time in touting Viacom's ongoing turnaround efforts.“We are setting Viacom up for success as a truly multi-platform, global, brand and IP-driven entertainment company," he told analysts.
Bakish also announced that rival Fox has agreed to license Viacom's Vantage data-driven advertising product to help manage TV buys. On its own U.S. advertising sales fall during the latest quarter, the exec told analysts Viacom's recent upfront volume was "down low single-digits, but this was by design," to ensure ad inventory was available for the scatter pricing market.
He also spotlighted cable channel brands like MTV, with its Jersey Shore reboot, Comedy Central and BET as they grew ratings, while cutting operating costs. As part of his efforts to revitalize the media conglomerate, Viacom has reorganized a half-dozen brands like the MTV, BET, Nickelodeon and Nick Jr. channels and the Paramount film studio.
And Viacom has launched studio production units at Nickelodeon and MTV, with separate units for Comedy Central and BET to open soon, as all four studios aim to create original content for third party distributors by leveraging existing and new intellectual property.
Bakish said he was close to naming a replacement for Cyma Zarghami as president of the Nickelodeon Group and the kids-focused brand.
Pivotal Research Group analyst Brian Wieser slightly lowered his price targets on the shares of Viacom and CBS recently. “CBS remains a ‘hold’-rated stock, but as Viacom stock has fallen to a point that is 15 percent below our current price target, and further considering the advantage we expect Viacom to realize in a [potential] recombination, we upgrade Viacom from ‘hold’ to ‘buy’ at this time,” he said.
Aug. 9, 10 a.m. Updated with comments by Viacom CEO Bob Bakish made during an analysts call.