Ordinarily, Wall Street wouldn’t much care about Time Warner’s Q1 earnings report tomorrow morning. Unusually good, or bad, numbers won’t affect the company’s value: It’s $85 billion, AT&T’s acquisition offer — assuming, as most do, that the Justice Department will approve the deal.
But investors will be listening intently to hear what’s up with the company’s cable network subscribers following a string of weaker-than-expected video head counts in Q1 reports from distributors including AT&T, Comcast, Dish Network, Verizon, and — this morning — Charter.
Time Warner’s comments about subscriptions for its pay TV networks will “either exacerbate or assuage fears” about the business, RBC Capital Markets’ Steven Cahall says.
Big Media stocks collectively are up 7% as a group so far this year. With discouraging news, they “could be due for a derating,” he says.
Guggenheim Securities’ Michael Morris calls distributors’ Q1 subscriber drops “concerning.” The companies that have reported so far account for 84% of all U.S. pay TV subs. And they show a fall of 759,000 subscribers in the 12 months ending in March — a big pick up from the 292,000 loss in the 12 months that ended in December.
When you take out estimated contributions from low priced streaming services such as Dish Network’s Sling TV, then “these distributors have lost 1.68 million video subscribers” in the 12 months ending in March, the analyst says.
That means the new services aren’t growing fast enough “to bolster confidence in ecosystem health.”
Cahall believes that DirecTV Now and YouTube TV “have broken the market open for virtual Pay TV in ways that Sling and [Sony’s PlayStation Vue] hadn’t done previously, and this could be leaving more households on the sidelines from gross adds as they wait and see what virtual Pay TV can offer.”
He adds that the Q1 numbers might have been weighed by unusually high churn rates at U-Verse (where AT&T is encouraging subs to switch to DirecTV) and at Charter (which is ending many discounts enjoyed by customers from Time Warner Cable, acquired last May).
Bernstein Research’s Todd Juenger is less forgiving. He says this morning that it the noise in the market “sounds to us like media fizzling.”
He notes that Nielsen’s estimates of network subscribers “also continue to show an acceleration in the rate of decline.”
On top of that, Comcast’s report last week showed a 3% drop in cable network ad sales, while broadcast ads were flat. “By all accounts, these results fall short of market expectations,” Juenger says.
MoffettNathanson Research’s Michael Nathanson also has his fingers crossed as Big Media companies prepare to report their Q1 results.
His analysis of Nielsen data suggest that there’s an “intense bifurcation of viewing behavior into live and non-live buckets as viewers increasingly avoid syndicated TV shows, repeat films and, now, even original scripted cable content.”
That could mean “the era of ‘Peak TV’ driven by an explosion of cable originals is coming to an end.”
Specifically. he sees that the audience for non-live programming fell 7% in Q1 at the 20 largest cable networks, although live news and sports were up 14%.
“In a world of increasingly on-demand opportunities (SVOD, VOD, DVR, OTT) linear networks running a steady diet of old films and syndication scare us,” he says.