Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes needed a better joke writer to help him acknowledge the anniversary of the blunder he made at last year’s UBS Annual Global Media and Communications Conference when he wrote off Netflix, comparing it to the Albanian army trying to take over the world. He had to eat those words as Time Warner, along with just about everyone else, began licensing programming to the online streaming service. “This is the appropriate place to point out that the Albanian army did take over the world. Alexander the Great? It’s close.” The line only elicited a few chuckles from analysts, but they didn’t seem to mind after hearing Bewkes say a lot of things they wanted to hear. Time Warner’s ad sales have been “up double digits (since the upfront market) and are holding.” Although 4Q was a little soft, “some of that is advertisers pulling stuff forward to the upfront. … We’re looking fine for the first quarter,” especially with the return of NBA games.
He also assured investors that they don’t have to be concerned about Warner Bros’ prospects following the end of the Harry Potter film series. He said that within hours, the Harry Potter presence that has done so much for Universal’s Islands of Adventure park in Orlando “will move in a material way in that direction” — suggesting that the company and Comcast will confirm reports that Universal Studios Hollywood will get a version of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter attraction. “Everybody stay tuned.” He also says that the studio has high hopes for additional franchises including the Batman/Dark Knight series.
As for Time Warner’s cable channels, Bewkes says that TBS and TNT are starting to recover from a period of weaker-than-expected ratings. He attributed the problem to a few syndicated series including Without A Trace and Law & Order that he says “wore out.” About five years ago the major networks “were all economizing,” resulting in a dearth of good shows. “We have that rat moving through the snake,” Bewkes says. Now there’s a lot of new hit shows including The Big Bang Theory. “It’s now starting to run on TBS, and it’s doing great. … We’re not soothsayers here. But we’re looking at it carefully” and feel optimistic. He didn’t rule out the possibility of a bid for NFL games but says he’ll only do it if it “fits with our desire to make money. … We aren’t trying to re-create ESPN.” Bewkes also talked up CNN, saying that its ratings are up as much as 30% “admittedly off of what had gone down.” The growing focus on international events and the election campaign will play to CNN’s advantage, he says. “It’s a very profitable channel and has been growing profits for the last seven years.” Bewkes adds that he isn’t worried yet about pay TV cord-cutting. The online alternatives are still mostly for early adopters and are “not that easy to use.”
Still, Bewkes defended his drum beating for TV Everywhere, which makes it possible for pay TV services to offer cable channel programming to mobile and other digital devices. “It’ll give consumers a fair deal. … The advertising can migrate to what the interactive positives are.” Indeed, he says that the company is seeing great results from the pay TV providers who offer the HBO GO digital on-demand service. “Viewing is up considerably in the neighborhood of 30% to 50%,” Bewkes says. “I think that will continue across the base.”
After years of spinning off assets and returning cash to shareholders — Time Warner returned 150% of its capital this year in the form ot stock repurchases and dividends — Bewkes says that he’s considering acquisitions. “We never rule them out. We’ve done about 20 deals in the last three or four years, 80% of them are overseas.” But he said he’ll only buy a business that complements Time Warner’s existing operations, at prices that wouldn’t drive the stock down. For example, he’ll stay away from “strange conceptual diversification into areas that nobody understands” — an obvious reference to Time Warner’s disastrous merger with AOL. “If any of you are pushing deals like that on trusting clients, you shouldn’t.”