Hollywood Conglomerates Gear Up for Quarterly Earnings Reports

Elsa's hair

Even though Disney's animators had wrestled with braids for 2011's Tangled, the hair for Elsa was vastly more complicated: While Rapunzel carried 27,000 extralong strands on her head, the Frozen team found themselves dealing with upward of 400,000 CG threads -- a feat that required the invention of a new program, called Tonic, to execute.

TV advertising trends and 2014 outlooks will be in focus on earnings conference calls.

With big entertainment stocks having declined early in 2014, investors are looking for fourth-quarter earnings season for Hollywood conglomerates to help shed a light on the state of TV advertising trends, which underperformed for some big sector players late last year.

And companies' outlook for 2014 will also be in the spotlight early in the year, with some analysts also expecting conference call questions about possible pay TV consolidation amid continued chatter about a possible combination of Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable.

"The first time in recent memory, some media executives, blaming softer scatter and weak ratings trends, publicly talked down fourth-quarter advertising expectations," MoffettNathanson analyst Michael Nathanson said in a recent preview. "While these comments were made back at an investor conference in December, it seems the market only started paying attention when the calendars turned to 2014…Year-to-date, we have seen sharp losses at many of the mostly cable-network centric names that are impacted by both poor ratings and weak scatter demand."

PHOTOS: Sun Valley Scene: Rupert Murdoch, Brian Roberts, Brian Grazer Arrive at Allen & Co. Retreat

Among other big Hollywood stocks, CBS Corp.'s stock closed 2013 at $63.74, but finished Monday's trading session at $58.18. Time Warner shares are down from $69.72 to $62.88. And Walt Disney's stock over the same period went from $76.40 to $72.25.

UBS analyst John Janedis recently lowered his fourth-quarter TV network unit ad forecasts for the likes of 21st Century Fox, Time Warner and Viacom.

"Early first-quarter scatter volumes appear to have picked up, with [ad prices] unchanged, up in the mid single digits versus the upfront," Janedis said in his earnings season preview. "The tone feels better, but we expect the Olympics to have a…drag on first-quarter ad growth."

Nathanson echoed that, suggesting big entertainment stocks may remain under pressure near-term. "We think that first-quarter advertising and ratings trends could be negatively impacted by the Winter Olympics on NBC, which should gain share of viewers and dollars," he wrote. "As such, the near-term downward slide in media valuations could likely continue until earnings revision trends improve. Fourth-quarter results will likely not provide that relief."

Here is a quick look at key trends expected to shape the latest quarterly earnings reports of big Hollywood companies.

NBCUniversal owner Comcast on Tuesday morning will open the quarterly earnings season for Hollywood conglomerates.

Macquarie Securities analyst Amy Yong predicts quarterly broadcast and cable networks operating cash flow to rise slightly, even though she said USA and Syfy ratings declined year-over-year.

Meanwhile, film should see higher revenue, but lower cash flow. Lone Survivor and The Best Man Holiday have been among the unit's key recent releases.

MTV and Paramount Pictures owner Viacom will report its latest quarterly financials on Thursday.

Guggenheim Securities analyst Michael Morris recently lowered his U.S. ad revenue growth forecast for the company's latest quarter to 4 percent from 5 percent "due to modestly lower demand and weaker ratings, primarily at MTV." But he raised his international ad forecast to 8 percent from 5 percent, saying he believes that "ad demand at European networks continues to improve."

Overall, that will allow the company to post results in line with Wall Street expectations and its own guidance.

Morris also raised his film unit revenue forecast for the latest quarter "to reflect the solid theatrical results of Anchorman 2 and The Wolf of Wall Street."

Time Warner
Time Warner will continue earnings season for big entertainment companies early on Feb. 5.

The firm's film unit results are expected to be strong thanks to the box-office performance of Gravity and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

A new Batman video game will also boost the quarterly profit at the film unit, which is expected to post one of its biggest quarters ever. That could also have boosted Warner Bros. to have its most profitable year ever, management has said.

"We see a combination of a softer scatter market and weaker ratings – CNN down as expected given political comps, but TNT, Cartoon, and TruTV also down," Morris predicted for the fourth-quarter TV networks unit. He recently lowered his TV networks U.S. ad growth forecast for the latest quarter from 5 percent to 2 percent.

"Management’s 2014 outlook will be key to the fourth-quarter earnings call," said Morris. "With the Time Inc. spin-off still on track for 2014, we anticipate an outlook to focus on networks (we expect high-single-digit affiliate revenue and program cost growth) and film (2014 operating profit similar to 2013)."

Walt Disney
Walt Disney's latest earnings report is scheduled to take place after the market close on Feb. 5.

And film results are expected to be strong. Cowen analyst Doug Creutz on Monday increased his film unit profit forecast for the latest quarter, "primarily reflecting an upward revision to our studio entertainment segment estimates, driven by the strong box office performances turned in by Frozen and Thor: The Dark World."

Echoed Morris: "We expect the studio to be strong, while networks could see a timing benefit from lower revenue deferral."

Stifel, Nicolaus analyst Drew Crum predicts that cable networks revenue growth and unchanged broadcast unit revenue along with the shutdown of ESPN UK will help drive overall media networks higher for the quarter.

21st Century Fox
Rupert Murdoch
's 21st Century Fox is set to unveil its latest financials on Feb. 6.

Higher programming spending for new cable networks, such as Fox Sports 1 and FXX, will be a drag on cable networks unit profitability growth, according to Nathanson. That will mean a gain of only 1 percent despite solid advertising and affiliate fee revenue growth.

Higher expenses will also mostly offset advertising revenue growth in the broadcast TV segment, with the analyst now projecting a bigger film unit drop than previously.

Said Nathanson in a recent report: "We are reducing our film profits given the disappointing performance from Walking With Dinosaurs and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty."

CBS Corp.
Quarterly earnings season for entertainment conglomerates will wrap up with CBS Corp. on Feb. 12.

Evercore Partners analyst Alan Gould recently reduced his quarterly earnings forecast, raising his corporate expense estimate due to the upcoming separation of the CBS Outdoor business IPO costs and reducing his entertainment and cable networks profit expectations.

"We expect fourth-quarter network advertising revenue growth of 4.4 percent, with local TV station advertising revenue down 10 percent due to tough political comparisons," predicts ISI Media analyst Vijay Jayant.

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