Networks Still Nagged By Weak Ad Growth As Upfront Market Approaches

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The numbers have been too worrisome for too long to consider them a short term fluke. If the TV ad sales business hasn’t peaked, it probably soon will, according to a growing number of Wall Street analysts — including Cowen & Co’s Doug Creutz and MoffettNathanson Research’s Michael Nathanson, who both just cut their 2015 TV ad sales estimates.

They reject the view that media companies’ slowing domestic ad growth numbers in Q3 and Q4 mostly reflected temporary quirks in the Nielsen ratings, an uneven economic recovery, or idiosyncrasies in the auto industry. There’s growing evidence that ad buyers are moving dollars that they used to lavish on television networks over to digital services such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. That’s buttressed by recent comments by execs —  including ones this week from Fox COO Chase Carey and Discovery CEO David Zaslav — indicating that the sales weakness has continued into Q1.

National TV sales “decelerated sequentially and precipitously over the last year,” Nathanson says. Now, “the question turns to how quickly digital will take share from TV and, more immediately, how will the weak second half of 2014 impact the development of the 2015 upfront.” In one barometer, the scatter market, ad prices “remain weak for most companies.”

Creutz calls the shift from TV to digital “real and significant.” But that’s just one factor: TV ratings also continue to fall. In the first nine weeks of Q1, broadcast is down 13.3% vs the same period last year, and cable is down 10.7%,  in prime time live-plus-same day ratings for 18-to-49 year olds. That’s worse the the numbers from Q4 when broadcast was off 8.6% and cable slipped 6.4%.

The lost dollars won’t necessarily all come back if ratings improve, or as Big Media companies chase advertisers by putting networks and shows on streaming services. Buyers who used to fear the idea of leaving TV now are comfortable using the Internet to target sales pitches — and accustomed to spending less.

Advertising has been in a deflationary cycle for 15 years, Creutz says. Indeed, between 2007 and 2014 “traditional media lost nearly $50B in advertising, while digital media grew by less than $30B, for a net decline in U.S. advertising of $20B.” As a result, “we are concerned that even though Big Media may be able to slow or stem audience losses through new content distribution methods, there could still be a significant negative impact on price per viewer, and thus, further pressure on advertising.”

Looked at another way, “the only way television advertising growth can recover relative to the trends seen last year is if it gains share within the overall advertising market, something that seems unlikely,” Barclays Research’s Kannan Venkateshwar said last week.

Will anyone aside from advertisers and digital services benefit from the trends? Hollywood studios might. “The normal reaction of network executives who see their audiences declining is to say ‘let’s invest more in programming to get our audiences back’,” Bernstein Research’s Todd Juenger says. That’s “not good for network [profit] margins (unless you’re the lucky network who finds the next Walking Dead), but it sure is good for the studios.”

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