Upfront Afterglow Could Wear Off Quickly for Media Companies

TV Storm Clouds Upfronts
Maggie Chiang for Variety

The current parade of second-quarter earnings reports may trigger traumatic memories for media-business CEOs. It was during this period in 2015 that their sector saw a two-day selloff that wiped out $60 billion in their collective market capitalization.

One year later, it would seem those companies won’t have to endure a meltdown of that magnitude. Comcast and CBS Corp., the two conglomerates that reported last week, set a positive tone for the quarter, thanks to an auspicious indicator: The upfront selling season that drives a huge helping of revenue to their TV networks concluded to unexpectedly robust results.

But there’s still reason for some skittishness as more of their competitors report their own earnings in the coming days.

The health of ad sales over the past few quarters is counterintuitive, considering the prevailing narrative that online and mobile alternatives could sap TV’s strength. That’s almost certainly still true in the long term.

But revenue is flowing back to TV because the bloom is off the digital rose: Concerns about pervasive ad blocking and click fraud have prompted a rethink among many marketers. Some who stayed out of last year’s upfront ended up feeling the sticker shock of having to pay scatter prices, which in turn has refueled interest in this year’s upfront.

Broadcast TV is especially strong, posting approximately $9 billion in commitments, representing a 5% boost after three consecutive years of decline.

NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke was particularly pleased about double-digit increases across all his networks, crowing on Comcast’s earnings call with investors: “We’re going into an Olympics period, so who knows what’s going to happen there. But I think the advertising market is very, very strong, and some of that is reflected in the upfront.”

The third quarter is widely expected to be a downer for everyone but NBCU, which will post great ratings across all of its channels thanks to the Olympics. AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

But these companies shouldn’t get too comfortable. The vitality of TV ad sales during the second quarter may be short-lived, according to Tony Wible, media analyst at Drexel Hamilton, who sees marketers experimenting between their mix of TV vs. digital and upfront vs. scatter. “I’m doubting the sustainability,” he said. “What remains to be seen is how much of the upfront is a one-time rebalancing.”

Media companies have seen the value of their shares trail the S&P 500 all quarter, with the exception of Time Warner, at just +1%. The third quarter is widely expected to be a downer for everyone but NBCU, which will post great ratings across all of its channels thanks to the Olympics — and depress everyone else’s numbers at the same time.

The fourth quarter could also be problematic, as last year’s robust scatter market set up a tough comparison. Political advertising at the peak of the election cycle could offset that, but that’s still a question mark.

Even in the best-case scenario, the ad-revenue infusion from politics and the Olympics sets up a comparatively tough 2017. Magna Global projects that U.S. TV ad sales will drop 5% year-over-year, though that difference would be roughly flat if politics and Olympics were pulled out of the equation.

sources: thomsonone, moffettnathanson analysis

The media sector isn’t just about advertising, of course. Affiliate sales are just as critical; it was Disney’s recalibration of its long-term projections in that area that set last year’s sector-wide sell-off in motion. A year later, affiliate sales are not looking any rosier, even though just about all pay-TV distributors are locked into long-term agreements.

While broadcaster retransmission-consent deals have a huge upside, the same can’t be said for revenue growth from cable channels. Consolidation among distributors could drive M&A activity back on the content side. Coming off a quarter that saw deals between Comcast and DreamWorks Animation as well as Lionsgate and Starz, there’s anticipation of more to come, anywhere from a Viacom-CBS recombination to acquisitions of the pure-play TV programmers that are seeing their stocks suffer most: Discovery, AMC Networks, and Scripps.

The smaller companies, which lack the leverage that comes with having sports channels in their portfolios, could also be vulnerable to skinny bundles — discounted multichannel packages that have limited space for second-tier TV brands. Market entrants like Sony’s PlayStation Vue and Dish’s Sling TV are growing slowly, and the expected entry of Hulu into this category in the coming quarter is being closely watched.

sources: thomsonone, moffettnathanson analysis

These skinny bundles are competing for consumer dollars not only with traditional pay-TV tiers but with streaming services like Netflix and HBO Now. The second quarter — traditionally a tough period to retain subscribers — has been a mixed bag, with Netflix, AT&T, Verizon, and Dish all underperforming. However, Comcast has fared relatively well, and CBS CEO Leslie Moonves has said that the combined 2 million subs for CBS All Access and Showtime’s streaming offering “are well ahead of where we thought we’d be.”

Another area where content companies are exercising caution is in their subscriber VOD licensing deals. Because of criticism that the resulting windfalls come at the expense of linear-channel ratings, conglomerates are increasingly touting stacking rights as a means of strengthening pay-TV partnerships. But there’s also talk out of the other side of their mouths, like Netflix’s new deals for CW content and FX’s “American Crime Story.”

Syndication will be hailed as a growing revenue stream overseas, too. But additional markets are going to provide only so much extra opportunity. Brexit will further aggravate the persistent problem of currency exchanges. Companies like Discovery and Fox that are more global-facing than some of their peers will likely find themselves penalized this quarter for that exposure.

Box office, which is increasingly driven by performance in international markets, will also be of limited value. Too few blockbusters in the early summer mean that Disney, Fox, and Warner Bros. lack the drivers that can sometimes make the difference in how a quarter is perceived, as NBCU saw in this period last year by scoring with “Jurassic World” and “Furious 7” back to back. That led to an impossible comparison in 2016’s Q2 for NBCU, though neither Universal Pictures nor the other studios actually had that bad a quarter, with no write-down-worthy bombs expected.

Yet, with landmines practically everywhere companies step across the media landscape, there’s the prospect of another sector-wide nosedive. But Wible doesn’t see that happening again. “Last year was about a perceptual shift, but now the market has awareness of what this business is facing,” the analyst said. “The pessimism has already discounted these stocks.”