With earnings season well under way, AT&T Thursday kicks off a spate of financial reports by media and entertainment companies that will give investors the first close-up look at a quarter dominated by COVID-19.
The April-to-June period is likely to see a startling amount of red ink, especially for any players with exposure to theatrical movie releasing, live sports and theme parks. (That trifecta has pummeled Disney, which is due to report its numbers on August 4.) Companies focused on local TV and digital advertising have already been warning that their quarterly ad revenue could plunge by more than 50% in the period.
AT&T’s WarnerMedia division certainly has sensitivity, with Warner Bros waylaid by theater closures and production halts and networks like TNT and TBS deprived of top draws like the NBA. But investors will also be listening for reports of progress and plans on repaying debt — the company has more than $160 billion of it — and early numbers for HBO Max. The streaming service, which launched May 27, is the central mission for Jason Kilar, who became WarnerMedia CEO early that month, not long after veteran exec John Stankey was announced as Randall Stephenson’s replacement as AT&T CEO. Stankey has not yet anchored an earnings report to Wall Street, but he has been a consistent presence on the quarterly calls and other communication with investors.
Netflx and Snap have already reported quarterly numbers, with both seeing their stocks hit by investor angst at subscriber/user growth. Snap also noted that advertising started strong but didn’t follow a straight line last quarter and that it expects ad sales to slow slightly in the current third quarter given a lack of visibility around the ususal live sports, film releases and back-to-school promotions. Twitter, which also reports Thursday, will face a whole set of questions about how it is securing and policing its platform.
AT&T’s numbers and insights are eagerly awaited since the telco and most public companies declined to offer their ususal guidance during the last spate of conference calls given unprecedented economic murkiness. A few, like Fox, Discovery, AMC Networks and Sinclair, predicted steep drops in advertising, with improvements in the second half. (Fox and AMC Networks report August 4, Discovery and Sinclair on August 5.)
Macquarie Research, in an outlook of major ad agencies, sees U.S. TV network ad sales declining 26% on average in the second quarter, and dipping 8% for the full year. Pandemic flare-ups have “again put already-staggered upfront negotiations on hold as brands assess the value of their media commitments in the face of more lockdowns,” the firm’s Tim Nollen wrote.
Ad forecasters GroupM and Magna Global expect full-year downturns of ad growth of 9.9% and 7%, respectively, with TV down high-single to low-double-digits and digital roughly flat.
Sports has been major factor. The NBA is set to resume play July 30 in Orlando with a doubleheader on TNT. The league’s return, along with that of Major League Baseball, should also buoy the second-half hopes of Disney. ESPN and ABC networks are heavily invested in hoops, whose “bubble” is at Disney World in Orlando, FL.
The NFL, however, is the ultimate determinant of ad sellers’ fate. While the league has set forth a series of protocols ahead of its planned September 10 season start, about $9 billion in annual TV revenue remains up in the air given day-to-day updates on the pandemic.
At AT&T, reporting before the market opens Thursday, results will be mixed, thinks William Power of Baird Equity Research, due largely to an anticipated 23% drop in revenue at Warner Media to about $6.3 billion.
Power sees total AT&T revenue down about 9% at $40.8 billion for the second quarter, advertising sales flat at $485 million and communications revenue, the bulk of it, down 6% to $32 billion. He sees linear video subscribers continuing to erode by an additional 1 million, continuing a trend that has accelerated.
In the first quarter, by one reliable estimate, top pay-TV operators lost 2.1 million total customers in the first quarter, double the number during same period of 2019. And that was before the pandemic left tens of millions unemployed. Big cablers like Charter and Comcast, however, can offset losses of tradtional video customers with with uptake on the broadband side. (Comcast reports Q2 earnings on July 30, Charter on the 31st.)
“It’s an understatement to say that new CEO Mr. Stankey takes his seat at a pivotal crossroads for AT&T,” Credit Suisse analyst Doug Mitchelson wrote in a recent note to clients. Management’s efforts to turn AT&T into a so-called “’convergence conglomerate,'” he added, “have saddled the company with two businesses in severe secular decline,” he said, “and a balance sheet that equity investors run from at the first sign of debt market trouble.”
“The COVID crisis brought back to the forefront the sheer magnitude of the company’s debt and temporarily hampered asset sales,” Mitchelson said.
He suggests AT&T could garner cash by scrapping its $15 billion annual dividend payout, or pursue a spinoff of DirecTV — although there are downsides to both scenarios.
“One thing Mr. Stankey certainly can do is indicate the company is refocused on the balance sheet and will not be buying back stock going forward,” he said.
Mitchelson thinks HBO Max has done reasonably well since its May 27 launch based on app downloads (which he said have settled at about 400,000 a week). But with Hollywood only beginning to open, he noted, the streaming service will need to sustain momentum without much new content, “especially given how expensive this pivot is for AT&T.” He didn’t mention the confusion at launch over where and how consumers who already subscribed to HBO should access and watch the new service, which some on Wall Street have identified as an early flaw.
Revenue at DirecTV will fall 12% and EBITDA 15%, Mitchelson predicts as the service “shifts from losing low quality promotion subs last year to losing healthy, profitable subs this year,” plus COVID impacts on advertising and bars. The second half could prove even more challenging for DirecTV as unemployment pressures mount. And he sees “little traction for AT&T TV” despite the AT&T TV Now repackaging which dropped HBO and lowered the price $10 to $50.
Tech companies have largely thrived during COVID-19, among them Twitter. But the social media giant is fresh off trying to dismantle a giant QAnon conspiracy and is probing a major hack of high profile, high net worth Twitter account holders from Bill Gates to Barack Obama. Those challenges are likely to be part of the discussion with analysts about keeping the environment palatable to advertisers and users alike.
Analyst John Blackledge of Cowen sees Twitter revenue down 18% to $687 million, with ad revenue falling 22%. It was up 0.4% in the first quarter and up 21% in the year earlier period.
He forecast 175 million daily active users last quarter, up 26% year on year and up 5% from the first quarter. The breakdown is 35 million in the U.S. and 140 million internationally.
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