AMC Networks Tops 6M Streaming Subs, Targets up to 25M by 2025

Josh Sapan
Courtesy of AMC Networks

AMC Networks CEO Josh Sapan

CEO Josh Sapan touts the upcoming "bonanza" for fans of the 'Walking Dead' franchise and the "new harmony" with pay TV partners, but 'Better Call Saul' will "likely" only return in 2022.

AMC Networks, the cable networks company that operates AMC, IFC, WE tv, BBC America and SundanceTV, has reported better-than-expected streaming subscriber growth for 2020 and better-than-feared U.S. advertising trends in the final quarter of the year.

The firm ended 2020 with more than 6 million streaming subscribers, including AMC+, exceeding its target, and boosted its longer-term forecast.

AMC, led by CEO Josh Sapan, last year had raised its projection for paid subscribers for its four niche streaming services, namely Acorn TV, Shudder, Sundance Now and UMC, saying it would end 2020 with more than 4 million, and around 5 million to 5.5 million subscribers when including AMC+, which features the best of AMC, BBC America, IFC and SundanceTV, plus more.

The new data means the company has handily jumped over the lower end of its 2022 target of 5 million to 7 million streaming subs, "implying an upgrade is coming," according to Macquarie Capital analyst Tim Nollen.

The official increase indeed came later in the morning on the firm's earnings conference call. On it, Sapan said that AMC Networks expects to reach more than 9 million streaming subscribers by year-end 2021 and 20 million to 25 million by 2025. The CEO said over that time frame, streaming would also become the company's largest revenue segment. Among the further growth opportunities, management cited an accelerated international expansion of the firm's streaming services and content investments.

The company on Friday also reported a 5.5 percent drop in U.S. advertising revenue to $237 million in the fourth quarter amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has affected productions and therefore the availability of original programming. That exceeded estimates.

Nollen had forecast a 14 percent U.S. ad decline in the latest period. And management had forecast that fourth-quarter advertising declines over the year-ago period would be relatively consistent with the third-quarter drop of 15.5 percent due to the timing of original content, including a delay on The Walking Dead.

"The decrease in advertising revenues was primarily related to shifts in the timing of original programming as a result of production delays caused by the pandemic, resulting in lower inventory, partially offset by [ad rate] increases driven by healthy scatter pricing," the company said.

On the earnings call, Sapan also touted the continuation of season 10 of AMC hit show The Walking Dead this weekend and 40-plus new TV episodes in the Walking Dead franchise, including Fear the Walking Dead and The Walking Dead: World Beyond, in 2021, calling it "a bonanza of epic and wonderful" for fans.

Sapan lauded the latest results: "2020 was a year of strong performance for AMC Networks, as we continued to transform our company while successfully navigating what has been a uniquely challenging and uncertain operating environment," he said. "AMC Networks is now the worldwide leader in targeted streaming and, with the addition of our new AMC+ premium bundled offering, streaming is now the most significant growth area of our company."

He added: "Our proven and continued ability to create and selectively curate must-have content is allowing us to feed the content pipeline supporting all of our offerings. Our strategy is providing us with strong tailwinds, and we believe there are significant and sustainable opportunities before us as we continue to reconstitute our company."

AMC also provided an update on a previously announced restructuring, including layoffs. "In November 2020, management commenced a restructuring plan (the “2020 Plan”) designed to streamline the company’s operations through a reduction of its domestic workforce," it said in its earnings report. "The 2020 plan is intended to improve the organizational design of the Company through the elimination of certain roles and centralization of certain functional areas of the company."

In connection with this, the company said it "incurred severance and other personnel costs of $21.2 million," while "additional restructuring and other related charges for the year ended December 31, 2020 were $13.9 million, which related to costs associated with the termination of distribution in certain territories, as well as severance and other personnel related costs associated with previously disclosed restructuring activities."

AMC Networks' fourth-quarter bottom line swung to a profit of $94.7 million from a year-ago loss of $8.6 million. Revenue was virtually unchanged at $780.3 million.

For 2020, the company recognized a gain of $76 million related to its shares of streaming firm FuboTV, saying it has sold them all. "AMC Networks sold 3,593,494 shares of Fubo common stock in multiple transactions occurring in December 2020 and January 2021," realizing "total gross proceeds of $96 million in January 2021," it said. Fubo went public in October, with the stock reaching an all-time high in December.

On Friday, when asked about AMC Networks' relationships with pay TV distributors, Sapan said there was a "new harmony." He added: "We can now inhabit their basic cable [space] at a spectacular price" and serve their broadband-only users with the company's streaming services.

AMC's fourth-quarter earnings conference call was the first for new CFO Christina Spade, who previously served as CFO for ViacomCBS.

Nollen recently downgrade his rating on AMC from "buy" to "neutral," but raised his price target from $40 to $45. "We upgraded AMC in August...and last published on it in December when the stock was $32, raising our target price to $40," he explained. "Since then, AMC has risen 51 percent versus the S&P 500's 1 percent." He said the "significant run-up" in the stock price has been caused by a combination of factors, including "a broader rebound in value stocks," "anticipation of an ad recovery on a stronger slate of programming in '21" and "some anticipation of the company’s direct-to-consumer growth beginning to materially help" financials.

In premarket activity, AMC Networks shares were up more than 2 percent.