UPDATED with executive comments: After Fox Corp. delivered results in the quarter ending March 31 that topped Wall Street analysts’ forecasts, CEO Lachlan Murdoch offered his thoughts on NFL rights, streaming and other topics.
One question on many Hollywood and Madison Avenue minds was the first one asked during a conference call with analysts. What does Fox plans to program on Thursday nights on its flagship broadcast network after handing football to Amazon in 2022? Asked directly what will replace Thursday Night Football, Murdoch said it was “expensive” and said exiting the deal a year before it was scheduled to expire would lift earnings by $350 million to $400 million. Those proceeds will help fund the 13-year deal Fox struck to continue airing its much higher-rated Sunday afternoon NFL games.
Since separating from the Fox film and TV studio as part of a large-scale merger with Disney in 2019, Fox has relied increasingly on unscripted and animated series, which tend to be far cheaper than sports or scripted drama.
In addition to Amazon becoming the first streaming service to get exclusive rights to NFL games, the league overall decided to add more flexibility on streaming in its new deals with media companies. NBCUniversal, Disney and ViacomCBS are all planning significant streaming elements to their coverage during the next decade-plus.
Asked about carriage negotiations given that Fox, unlike rivals, will offer games only on linear TV, Murdoch said, “We are very mindful of the exclusive value of live NFL on broadcast television.” The company has “no plans” to create any kind of subscription streaming offering anchored in NFL rights, he added. At the same time, “a huge part for us,” he said of negotiations with the league, “was making sure we had the flexibility going forward to monetize these rights in different ways.”
With the 2020 political tornado having passed, the call featured much less discussion of Fox News than in previous quarters. Murdoch highlighted the growth of subscription streaming outlet Fox Nation, which launched in 2018. He said its subscriber base has risen 40% since February, though the exact tally of subscribers has not been released. Coverage on Fox Nation of the Conservative Political Action Conference in January and original programming linked to Fox News host Tucker Carlson fueled the rise in customers, Murdoch said. The company plans to invest in more content along the lines of the Carlson shows, he added.
Fox Corp. beat Wall Street analysts’ forecasts for its fiscal third quarter, with results that reflected difficult comparisons with the Super Bowl period a year earlier.
Adjusted earnings per share came in at 88 cents during the period ending March 31, well ahead of analysts’ consensus for 58 cents. Total revenue reached $3.22 billion, about $100 million ahead of the Street but down from $3.44 billion in the same quarter in 2020.
Affiliate revenue increased 10%, powered by an 18% gain in the Television unit. Advertising revenue of $1.2 billion slid by almost one-quarter from $1.57 billion in the prior-year quarter. The shortfall was attributed to the absence of an event comparable with 2020’2 Super Bowl LIV, though Fox said the slide was partially offset by the consolidation of Tubi. Fox paid $440 million to acquire the streaming service in a deal that formally closed in early 2020. Additional NFL regular season and playoff broadcasts in the current-year period also helped avert an even sharper ad downturn.
Speaking of football, CEO Lachlan Murdoch is apt to get questions during the company’s earnings call with analysts about the decision to exit Thursday Night Football a year early. Amazon Prime Video is taking over the NFL slot a year earlier than planned, beginning in 2022.
Fox struck a rights extension of its own with the NFL, though, in the same package of deals in which Amazon was a participant. The company will continue to air Sunday games and share Super Bowl rights.
Another potential topic will be Fox News Channel, the anchor of the company’s Cable Network Programming unit. Ad revenue there slipped to $283 million from $304 million. Strong pricing was “more than offset by a slower news cycle,” the company said in its earnings release. The “Other” revenue line fell to $120 million from $157 million, a slide the company blamed on lower sports sublicensing revenue and the absence of pay-per-view boxing in the current-year quarter.
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