That’s emerged as one of the day’s most talked about questions in media business circles — and it’s an unexpected one after Viacom’s worse-than-expected earnings report Friday morning for the quarter that ended in June. Oddly enough, investors responded by driving Viacom shares +5.6% over the last two trading days, well ahead of the overall market. What’s going on? Analysts who are bullish on the stock say it’s time to jump on a bargain. Viacom’s been beaten up in the year since it began to report plummeting ratings at some of its most important channels including Nickelodeon and MTV. It trades for about 9.6 times its estimated earnings per share for next year — lower than peers including Comcast (15.7 times), Disney (14.3 times), News Corp (13.8 times), CBS (12.3 times), and Time Warner (11.3 times). But CEO Philippe Dauman encouraged analysts on Friday to believe that a turn-around is near. Lazard Capital Markets’ Barton Crockett says he’s “more optimistic about a company whose recent ratings challenges earn it standing as this year’s ‘Dog of the Dial’.” The Viacom chief portrayed his company as the winner in the recent showdown with DirecTV — which could lead to high-single digit to low-double digit growth in pay TV fees beginning next year. Dauman also vowed to continue repurchasing Viacom shares; about $700M in the current quarter, for a total of $2.8B in the fiscal year that ends in September. And the CEO hit hard on the theme that Viacom’s array of new programs could catch on, especially the updated Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that will debut on Nickelodeon on September 29. Any pick up in ratings “should be a positive surprise for the stock,” says Maxim Group’s John Tinker.
Still, others remain skeptical. If ratings don’t improve, Wells Fargo Securities’ Marici Ryvicker notes, then it’s possible that “there will come a time when [Viacom’s] financial performance cannot support [its] 5-year, $20B capital return plan.” Credit Suisse’s Spencer Wang wonders whether Nickelodeon and MTV have lost their cache — and shot themselves in the foot by allowing fans of some programs to watch them on Netflix instead of ad-supported TV. Viacom’s toughest critic, Bernstein Research’s Todd Juenger, says that “the data points from [the current quarter] suggest to us no turnaround is happening yet, the hole is getting deeper for the flagship networks, and the financial safety nets (to preserve EPS) are gone.”