21st Century Fox surprised Wall Streeters Wednesday with better than expected earnings for its fiscal second quarter along with a 20% increase in its dividend. But execs also delivered the sobering news that a confluence of worrisome trends have forced them to shave $250 million off previous forecasts for fiscal 2015 profits and another $200 million from 2016.
Profit growth for fiscal 2015 has been trimmed to the low-end of mid-single digits versus the project of high end. For fiscal 2016, the projection is now mid-$7 billion. That projection already dropped from $9 billion to $8.1 billion last year after the sale of the Sky Deutschland and Sky Italia satellite-TV assets to BSkyB.
Fox chief operating officer Chase Carey said the twin blows of currency fluctuations against the strong U.S. dollar and advertising shortfalls at the Fox broadcast network and Fox O&O TV stations “simply became too large to offset.”
Carey’s comments underscored the depth of the decline of ratings and ad revenue at the Fox broadcast network, which he pinned on a lack of hit shows. After the management shuffle implemented last summer, Carey said they are confident that Fox has “fresh energy and momentum” under the leadership of Fox TV Group chiefs Gary Newman and Dana Walden, citing the heat of “Empire” since its debut last month.
But Fox’s problems have been exacerbated by the industry-wide shift of viewers to watching more traditional TV shows on new digital platforms — viewership that goes unmeasured or is not as lucrative for Fox as live TV viewing from an advertising perspective.
“The digital transition continues to be a glass-half-full story for us,” Carey said. The movement of significant amount of viewing to new platforms “has been a bit faster than many have expected,” which has put “short-term pressure on our business.”
Carey emphasized that Fox has not lost enthusiasm for the broadcast business nor its intention to invest in development and marketing for the network.
“If we just wanted to improve profits we’d squeeze programming and we’d squeeze marketing,” he said. “We don’t think that’s the right move. …We’re really talking about stabilizing the broadcast business. The real growth comes in the next couple of years, not in the next 12 months.”
Fox’s gains in the quarter ending in December were powered by growth of affiliate fee revenue at its cable division and higher theatrical revenue in its filmed entertainment unit. The company also posted a $5 billion gain on the sale of its shares in Sky Deutschland and Sky Italia to BSkyB.
Earnings Wall Street had been expecting earnings of about 41 cents per share, while Fox’s number came in at 53 cents a share.
Total revenue excluding the Sky sale grew 10% from the year-ago quarter to reach $7.4 billion. Adjusted earnings reached $1.7 billion, up 12% from year-ago.
Another factor that led to Fox’s revised profit guidance was the fact that the Shine Group merger with Endemol came together more quickly than they initially projected, meaning that revenue and earnings from that unit will no longer be part of fiscal 2015 results.
The cable network programming group was once again the star of the report, with operating income growing $121 million, or 12%, to $1.16 billion thanks to advertising and affiliate gains. But expenses at Fox’s sports nets took a 16% jump, fueled by the higher cost of rights fees for Major League Baseball playoff games that shifted to Fox Sports 1 last fall from the Fox broadcast network.
Currency fluctuations, mostly in Latin America, cost the cable group $65 million in operating income from the Fox International Channels group. Domestic advertising grew 11% in the quarter paced by FX and FXX and Fox News Channel.
In the Television segment encompassing the Fox broadcast network and TV station group, operating income improved 33% over the year-ago quarter, to reach$290 million, mostly because of lower programming costs due to the shift of MLB games off of Fox, the cancellation of “The X Factor” and the absence of “Glee” in the fourth quarter. The Fox network posted a 3% decline in advertising revenue.
The filmed entertainment side got a boost from the worldwide B.O. success of “The Maze Runner” and “Gone Girl” but operating income was essentially flat at $336 million. The TV production slate was also thinner than in past quarters with the wrap of shows including USA’s “White Collar” and CBS’ “How I Met Your Mother.” Fox had a banner year at the worldwide B.O., reaching $5.5 billion in 2014, but it also had underwhelming year-end releases including Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings.”