Viacom shares are down about 3.5% at midday on an otherwise up day for the market after CEO Philippe Dauman punted on the big question on the minds of analysts attending the UBS Annual Global Media and Communications Conference: What’s up with the steep decline in Nickelodeon’s ratings — which he said last month was due to a problem with Nielsen’s measurement system? “There’s nothing new” to report, he says. “No one’s more frustrated than myself.” He didn’t continue his attack the ratings company, which said today that it made a mistake in calculating the number of kids who watch TV — but added that it’s unrelated to the double-digit change in Nickelodeon’s ratings. “However imperfect Nielsen is, it’s the only game in town, so we have to live with it,” Dauman says. “It is what it is. We’re going to move on.” He acknowledged that the channel’s ratings dive is “unfortunate” because “this is by far the most important quarter for Nickelodeon” due to the number of toymakers who flock to the channel to advertise holiday gifts. But he says the Nick problem will become less significant after the holidays are over. “One way or the other we’ll move forward” with growing profit margins. Viacom has “more new shows coming to Nickelodeon than we’ve ever had.” He adds that “next quarter we expect to see stronger ad sales growth because we won’t have that issue” with the ratings.
At far as Paramount is concerned, Dauman crowed that he has “significantly reduced the overhead” at the film studio since he took control of the company five years ago. And five years from now “we would expect the studio to grow margins” especially as its animation effort “will be in full swing.” He noted that the studio set a record this year by having six consecutive movies that generated domestic box office sales of at least $100M. And he projected continued success by focusing on franchises including the upcoming Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol which he says “will play extremely well around the world.” Upcoming films in the franchise as well as Transformers and Star Trek will be done in 3D, he says.
He also says he’s optimistic about the prospects for Viacom’s cable channels. For example, pay TV companies probably won’t push to offer networks a la carte. When operators offer special low-priced programming tiers, “adoption has been low.” What’s more, operators are primarily concerned about high-priced sports channels, so “from Viacom’s perspective we’re going to do well no matter what the environment is.” He also dismissed the suggestion that his channels might face meaningful competition from Google’s YouTube as it rolls out channels of professionally produced programming. “It’s not so easy,” Dauman says. “We spend about $3B a year on programming. No one spends more than we do, and we’re going to grow that.” The company also produces low-cost entertainment for the Web. “It’s a good way for our creators to experiment,” he says.