Revenue drops 6.3% to $7.4 billion

RTL Group topper Gerhard Zeiler said Thursday cost cuts and an unexpected year-end rally helped the pan-European broadcasting giant to a steady net profit of E298 million ($407 million) in 2009, up slightly on the previous year.

However, revenue dipped 6.3% to $7.4 billion as the company weathered a double-digit drop in advertising revenue across Europe. Operating profit fell 17.6% to $1.03 billion.

The Austrian topper of the Luxembourg-based group with operations in 11 countries was cautious about the outlook for 2010.

“We had good full-year results and continue to operate at a high level of profitability,” Zeiler said, adding that it had managed to cut costs by $507 million last year.

“As far as our outlook for 2010 goes, you will not be surprised when I say we’ll remain cautious,” Zeiler said. “We cannot expect a great recovery in the advertising revenues to levels of the previous years 2006 to 2008, so we are retaining our cost-conscious approach. That will enable us to meet the challenges ahead. We’ll nevertheless continue to invest in growth areas.”

Zeiler said RTL, majority owned by German media group Bertelsmann, would continue applying strict cost control. “Overall, we plan more or less with the same cost base as in 2009. However, we are and we will remain flexible: we can further cut costs or do the opposite – that means stepping up programming investments, if the overall economic situation or the competition require so.”

Europe’s leading broadcasting conglom operates 45 TV channels and 31 radio stations, including its RTL channels in Germany, the M6 group in France and the Five group in the U.K., which accounted for some of the group’s biggest bottom-line dents.

Zeiler said RTL had cut the value of Five by $30 million after it lost $56 million last year on revenues that fell 30% to $414 million.

Five saw its operating profit plunge to a loss of $13.7 million in 2009 after a $2.7 million profit in 2008. Zeiler said the downturn in the U.K. was worse than expected even though Five, whose market share slipped to 8.4% from 9.6%, managed to cut operating costs by 19%.

Overall, the situation had been looking more bleak for RTL in the first half of last year, when the group suffered a $150 million net loss on revenues that were down 9.6% to $3.7 billion.

Zeiler said earnings in the full-year had been “satisfying” and the decline in advertising revenue had slowed “considerably.”

“Even though the revenue decline has slowed considerably since the fall of 2009, we’re not expecting any quick recovery in advertising revenues to the levels of previous years,” he said.

RTL’s German operations, consolidated under Mediengruppe RTL Deutschland, posted a 11.6% operating profit decline to $500 million, even though it managed to cut costs by 14% last year. Revenues in the group’s most important market fell 14.3% to $2.36 billion.

RTL production unit FremantleMedia posted steady results with revenue down 1.7% to $1.61 billion. Operating profit was virtually unchanged at $219 million. FremantleMedia produces Fox’s “American Idol,” NBC’s “America’s Got Talent,” CBS’ “The Price Is Right” and “Britain’s Got Talent” on ITV1.

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