Wall Street’s concerns about the ad market grew last week after a string of worrisome reports from major media companies. Now Tribune Media, which owns 42 TV stations, says that it, too, expects continued disappointments in Q4. “We’re still seeing some slight weakness in core” ad sales, CFO Steven Berns told analysts today in an earnings call designed to re-introduce Tribune to Wall Street as it prepares to list its stock on a major exchange. The year-over-year ad downturn won’t be as steep as the 5.9% drop Tribune saw in Q3. Political ads have been strong and CEO Peter Liguori says that sales to auto companies are “looking a bit more optimistic for us.” But he isn’t ready to say whether there’s a trend that will last into early 2015. “Let’s see what happens with the cycle, especially in this environment where I’m noticing quick ups and downs.” He adds that sales have picked up at WGN America as it re-brands itself — part of the transition from a superstation to a basic cable channel. “Things are moving very much in the right direction.”
The CEO says he’s pleased with the deal Tribune’s Seattle station, KCPQ, cut last month to keep its Fox affiliation — which the network threatened to yank. “At the end of the day reason and partnership won out,” Liguori says. “The alternatives to striking a new deal for Fox and for us were really not that attractive to either party.” Although Tribune will have to increase its payments to Fox, the station will see “noticeable and significant increases” in cash flow vs 2013.
Liguori also says he’s confident that his stations will be fine even if networks begin to offer programming on streaming services, similar to the just-launched CBS All Access. Digital initiatives offer “a tremendous opportunity to new distribution platforms for local broadcast content and even some of our original content. …We are at the ready to see who is coming in over the top. We are open to fertile discussions. And we view it as an opportunity.” Tribune believes streamers will be especially eager to carry its stations’ newscasts. “Our news delivers audience that is bigger than CNN, Weather Channel, CNBC, and SportsCenter combined.”
The company used its earnings call to help analysts sort through its transfomative initiatives to buy TV stations, spin off newspapers, and ramp up TV production and data services. Tribune Media now is “a diverse, modern media company,” Liguori says. “With the spinoff of our newspapers we sometimes get mistakenly categorized as a local broadcast company. That’s a misnomer. As the largest independent station group, certainly, local broadcast is a significant part of our overall business generating high margins and cash flow. However it is only one part of our story.” The company will offer more details about its plans at an Investor Day meeting in early December.