TV Nets’ Growing Investments In Original Shows Have Depressed Profits: Analyst

Are TV networks shooting themselves in the foot by increasing their outlays for original programming at a time when ratings are falling? That’s a big fear among media company investors — justifiably so, according to an intriguing report out today from Bernstein Research’s Todd Juenger.

Most major media companies “significantly increased” hours of original programming in 2015, he says, and that helped to depress profit margins.

It’s a dilemma, and he doesn’t believe that networks necessarily should cut their spending for originals. It’s “just one component of a vicious cycle” of profit declines for the industry, Juenger says.

It also would be pointless to call for a pullback.

“If you are a TV network executive, you aren’t wired to walk into your boss’ office and say, ‘Revenues are under pressure, here’s what I think we should do: cut back on programming,'” he says. “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Unless you happen to be the network that gets lucky and finds the next hit.”

The analyst figures that network profit margins at CBS fell to 16.8% in 2015 from 17.5% in 2014 as original programming increased 4% to 699 hours. Discovery dropped to 56.7% from 56.9% with hours up 2% to 2,158 — all of it at ID. ABC fell to 14.5% from 14.8% with hours increasing 3% to 803. Disney’s cable nets declined to 39.7% from 41.5% with hours up 9% to 1,066.  Fox broadcast dropped to 14.8% from 17.0% with 510 original programming hours, up 6%.

The trend doesn’t apply to everyone, though.

NBC cut its original hours by 3%. (Juenger doesn’t track Comcast, and didn’t offer a profit estimate for NBCUniversal.)

Viacom’s network profits slipped to 40.9% from 42.9% but its original programming hours were virtually flat at 954. Within the group, BET was up 115% to 153 hours, but Comedy Central fell 27% to 209.

Time Warner improved to 38.8% from 34.5% as it cut its original hours. Its ad-supported channels were down 2% to 663 hours, while premium networks’ hours dropped 3% to 242 — the 42% increase at Cinemax was offset by a 7% drop at HBO.

Some company profits increased even with additional programming. AMC Networks was up to 38.0% from 36.3%, as its  originals rose 7% to 316 hours — mostly at WEtv and IFC.  Fox cable’s margins rose slightly to 35.0% from 34.9% although its original hours increased 5% to 504. And Scripps improved to 49.2% from 49.0% with a 6% increase in hours to 1,489.

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