NBCUniversal Earnings Rise, Management Touts Planned Streaming Service

Steve Burke Headshot NBCU Publicity-H 2019
Courtesy of NBCUniversal

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts sees "significant value," and NBCU's Steve Burke touts the light ad load, better online monetization and ability to gain scale quickly, while vowing: "Our approach to monetizing content will remain balanced."

Cable giant Comcast, led by chairman and CEO Brian Roberts, on Wednesday reported better-than-expected fourth-quarter financials, including a higher profit at NBCUniversal, with management on the call touting the outlook for a streaming service that the entertainment arm will launch in early 2020.

Helping to kick off earnings season for big Hollywood companies, NBCUniversal, led by CEO Steve Burke, posted adjusted earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA), the profitability metric the company uses, of $2.12 billion, up 12.3 percent from the $1.88 billion recorded in the year-ago period. Quarterly revenue jumped 7.1 percent to $9.4 billion. Full-year adjusted EBITDA at NBCUniversal rose 4.6 percent to $8.60 billion, with revenue up 8.9 percent to $35.8 billion.

During Wednesday's earnings conference call, Roberts touted the approach Comcast and NBCUniversal have chosen to take in the increasingly crowded streaming field, last week unveiling its plans to launch a free NBCUniversal streaming service in 2020.

"There is robust demand for our content across multiple platforms," Roberts said. This popularity gives the company a "great opportunity to create own streaming service." He continued: "This service will be distinct and compelling, offering current and prior seasons, library and some original content with a light advertising load all for free to pay TV customers."

Roberts said Comcast believes that it can "generate significant value with this service over time by enhancing our content monetization, strengthening the value of pay TV, becoming a leader in targeted digital streaming advertising and expanding our reach through direct customer relationships."

And he emphasized again that it won't, at least for now, take its own content from other platforms, such as Walt Disney has started doing. "Our approach to monetizing content will remain balanced," Roberts said, emphasizing the focus on a "broad, varied distribution environment." The new streaming service will be “a valuable addition” to that, he said.

Comcast CFO Mike Cavanagh later added that spending on the service will be "manageable" and have a "negligible" impact on 2019 earnings.

Several analysts followed up on the streaming plans with questions throughout the call. Burke was asked about the content and underlying strategy for the streaming service. "Our excitement comes from the fact that the way we are entering the business really addresses the real objective we have, which is monetizing the growing online viewership better," he explained, highlighting growing online viewership of TV content. "People are watching professionally produced content at higher levels than ever. We are just not monetizing as well online as we should.”

He also focused on the advertising opportunity. “The service will have a very light ad load of targetable ads," Burke said, mentioning the "huge demand” for interactive digital advertising inventory. "In fact, we are constantly trying to find more ad inventory, because advertisers want to be in very, very good, professionally produced content."

Given that "there's nothing better than free for consumers" and that the service will be offered to the more than 50 million Comcast and Sky subscribers, in addition to a fee-based version to interested users without a pay TV subscription, Burke said the streaming service can gain scale more quickly and allow NBCU to get to break even more quickly.

Asked whether The Office and other NBCU shows that are currently available on Netflix or elsewhere would end up on the streaming service, Burke re-emphasized that "we will continue to sell on other platforms depending on the show, depending on the prices" and decide on a show-by-show basis. But again, he highlighted that "we do feel we undermonetize significantly on the Internet," including on free and SVOD platforms.  

Comcast, in its second earnings report since closing a roughly $39 billion deal for Sky, outbidding 21st Century Fox in an auction, also again lauded the European pay TV giant as a well-run company that can accelerate its growth Wednesday.

At NBCU, the broadcast TV unit led the fourth-quarter growth with a 109.3 percent EBITDA improvement to $412 million on higher distribution and advertising revenue, including higher retransmission consent fees, despite ratings declines, as well as lower programming and production costs.

Fourth-quarter film EBITDA fell 23.6 percent to $179 million, reflecting higher operating costs, partially offset by higher revenue, including a 189.3 percent theatrical revenue gain. Film releases in the fourth quarter included Dr. Seuss' The Grinch and Halloween, while the year-ago period had included Pitch Perfect 3.

Full-year film unit profit was down 42.5 percent as expected and projected by management after a record-setting 2017 that included such big hits as The Fate of the Furious and Despicable Me 3. Roberts on the earnings conference call gushed about the 2019 slate, including How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, The Secret Life of Pets 2 and Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw.

Comcast lost 29,000 residential cable TV subscribers in the fourth quarter to end 2018 with nearly 21 million. Sky's total customer relationships increased by 164,000 to 23.6 million in the fourth quarter, while the growth reached 735,000 for the full year. The European pay TV giant posted fourth-quarter EBITDA of $765 million, up 8.9 percent.

Roberts on the earnings conference call lauded a "healthy" fourth quarter for Sky, saying that the company again showed its strength and reiterating that there was "potential to expand into new markets." He said Comcast was "enthusiastic" about Sky's organic growth potential.

Comcast's overall fourth-quarter earnings fell to $2.5 billion, or 55 cents a share. But when excluding a onetime tax benefit from the year-ago results, earnings rose 36 percent to 64 cents per share, exceeding Wall Street expectations even though its high-speed Internet subscriber growth came in below forecasts. Full-year revenue increased 5.2 percent to $28.3 billion, including Sky.

Comcast on Wednesday also boosted its dividend by 10 percent, marking its 11th consecutive annual increase. The stock rose before the market open. 

"2018 was a successful and pivotal year for Comcast," Roberts said. "I’m pleased with the strong operational and financial results that we delivered across the company." He added: "NBCUniversal had a great year, fueled by double-digit growth in our TV businesses, reflecting our terrific broadcasts of big events like the NFL’s Super Bowl LII, the 2018 Olympics and the FIFA World Cup, and overall robust demand for our leading sports, news and entertainment content."

Addressing the big European acquisition late in the year, Roberts said: "We truly became a global company with our acquisition of Sky and are excited about its future and the potential of our combined company in 2019 and beyond."

On the call, he added that "the team did not miss a beat” during a busy year.