Now that Big Media’s 2Q earnings season is over, the big question on Wall Street is: Did it give us any insight into the future? CEOs’ cheery talk about strong ad sales in TV’s upfront market, the expected bump next year from political ads, and the revenues coming in from online streaming services may be irrelevant if the economy sinks into a deep, new recession. CEOs say they see no evidence of trouble yet. The industry’s leading cheerleader, CBS chief Les Moonves, channeled his inner Buzz Lightyear last week saying that he has “every reason to believe that we will deliver strong results throughout the rest of the year, into 2012 and beyond.” Investors still sliced 6.3% off of CBS’ market value. The Dow Jones U.S. Media Index is down about 16% in the last month as traders anticipate cuts in ad spending, ticket buying, subscriptions — the works. If the pessimists are right, then the race is on: Which company will be the first to change its message from “people will buy media because they have cash” to “people will buy media because it helps them to forget their problems”?
Here are other themes from the latest earnings reports:
Jobs: Media companies still aren’t hiring. No one said that so baldly, but it’s there between the lines: CEOs talked more about financial engineering – cutting costs and returning cash to shareholders – than about spending to become more competitive. Time Warner recorded $24M in layoff-related expenses, quadruple the amount from the same quarter last year, while Viacom spent $14M, up from zero last year. Yet virtually every media company is repurchasing shares or increasing its dividend. The message? CEOs can’t persuade investors that the companies know how to make a decent profit from their cash, and shareholders want it back.
Pay TV: This was “the weakest (quarter) in the industry’s history,” says Bernstein Research’s Craig Moffett. Analysts were startled to see the largest cable, satellite, and telco companies collectively lose about 195,000 video customers. The cord cutters don’t fit the stereotype of well-to-do technophiles. Moffett says that “all the evidence” shows that a growing number of people — especially young adults — simply can’t afford pay TV. Dish Network seemed to confirm that thesis by saying that it will shift its marketing focus to upscale consumers instead of bargain hunters. With the U.S. market stalled, it’s easy to see why cable programmers want investors to look at their expansion efforts in growing markets overseas such as India, Russia, China, and Brazil. “It is the current momentum and potential of our international assets that present a meaningful, unique opportunity for us,” Discovery Communications CEO David Zaslav told analysts.
Digital: Online streaming companies have become Big Media’s new best friends. CEOs say they’re delighted to license old movies and TV series to Netflix, Amazon, Hulu – and possibly giants such as Apple and Walmart. NBCUniversal chief Steve Burke says that “the kind of money that online video providers are paying for content is infinitely — almost infinitely — significantly greater than it was 18 months ago.” Viacom’s Philippe Dauman says his company’s revenues from online licensing deals in the U.S. and abroad will grow at least by “high, single-digit” percentages for the foreseeable future. BTIG’s Rich Greenfield says “it feels as if everyone in Hollywood’s new favorite drug is called ‘digital’ and it appears to be quite addictive.” But he and others still wonder whether the industry is being short-sighted. “With only so many hours in the day,” Greenfield asks, “is a massive ramp-up in on-demand viewing going to significantly reduce live TV (and live+3) ratings over the next few years?”
Movies: If there was any doubt, the 2Q reports made it clear that the bloom is off of the 3D rose. DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeff Katzenberg admitted that he was too optimistic about the appeal of the technology that requires moviegoers to pay higher ticket prices and wear glasses. Shares in 3D technology company RealD fell 33% to $12.35 — well below its $16 IPO price a year ago – after late July when it reported disappointing revenues for the June quarter. But some say there’s a chance 3D sales will grow if studios stop using it so much for animated and family films. They “skew a little bit lower than the average” for 3D ticket sales, Regal Entertainment CEO Amy Miles says. “When you have more of a fan boy picture, that may skew at the higher end of the average. (Paramount’s) Transformers was a good example of that.”