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AMC Networks 2016 Earnings Beat Wall Street Estimates, CEO Allays ‘Walking Dead’ Fears

AMC Networks beat Wall Street’s earnings estimates Thursday morning when it released its full year and fourth quarter results. As a result, the stock surged roughly 6% as of 10:15 ET, over $60 from a previous close of $57.50.

Yet questions about AMC flagship drama “The Walking Dead” remain. “As efforts to launch new, owned franchises have not succeeded, value has become increasingly concentrated in (a declining) ‘Walking Dead,'” Bernstein analysts wrote in a note to investors after the numbers came out.

AMC Networks CEO Josh Sapan, knowing what the financial sector would be focusing on, pointed out on a conference call with investors that not only is “The Walking Dead” still the biggest draw of young eyeballs on TV, its digital consumption is increasing, and it’ll make the company buckets of money in other non-linear contexts. “It will have a long life that accrues to our strategic benefit,” Sapan said. “This is an approach we’re replicating with many other shows. We think the company is becoming, and has become, more of a studio, as opposed to a channel operator.”

The company posted net revenue of $2.756 billion for 2016 on the whole, slightly above analyst expectations, and an increase of 6.8% from 2015. Operating income was $658 million, down 7% from 2015.

Adjusted EPS for the year came in at $5.73 — again, well above the consensus estimate of $5.62 — and $1.30 for the fourth quarter.

Fourth quarter net revenues in the International and Other increased 7.5%, or $51 million, to $730 million; but operating income was $104 million, a decrease of 35.3%, or $57 million, versus the prior year period. AMC attributed that decline to a $75 million loss in its International and Other segment. The growth in revenues was led by a 15.6% increase in distribution revenues to $316 million, primarily attributable to an increase in licensing revenues as well as an increase in affiliate fees. Advertising revenues increased 3.1% to $298 million due to higher pricing, but was affected by “The Walking Dead” and other decreased ratings deliveries — ratings for “The Walking Dead,” while still enormous, have fallen from previous seasons.

“With a rapidly expanding studio business, we now have a growing portfolio of shows that we own that provide this kind of opportunity for our business,” said Sapan. “In addition, we are embracing changing viewing habits by making strategic investments in streaming services that fit well with our programming and the audiences at our network brands.”

AMC called out two such investments Thursday: Its now $73 million investment in RLJ Entertainment (upped from an initial $65 million infusion), and its minority stake in Funny or Die. “We don’t enter these randomly or casually,” Sapan said Thursday morning, bringing up other investments in BBC Worldwide and ITV’s SVOD service BritBox, horror SVOD service Shudder, and SVOD service Sundance Now. “We feel it’s a progressive, interesting investment that will yield a return over time.”

The International and Other segment (which includes digital) continues to be a bit of a cost center for the company — while revenues were essentially flat for the fourth quarter, at $119 million, operating losses just for the quarter increased $75 million. In addition to some losses at IFC Films and $19 million vanishing due to unfavorable foreign exchange rates, there was a noncash $68 million impairment on AMCNI-DMC, the AMC’s Amsterdam-based media logistics facility.

AMC Networks is seeing increasing revenue from virtual MVPDs like Dish Network’s Sling TV and AT&T’s DirecTV Now. While Sapan wouldn’t comment on ongoing negotiations to join Hulu’s forthcoming live streaming cable package, he gave a mini sales pitch for his networks’ inclusion: “When you’re in the business of selling subscribers a service and you want them to connect at a price and you want them to stay and continue to re-up every month, if it’s not supported by a bundled IP or telephony product, especially, the five AMC Networks channels are a wise choice to include.”

Because AMC Networks only has five channels, Sapan argued, they each have significant value. “You don’t get a free lunch for showing up with 22 channels,” he said. “We knew there would be a reckoning.”

AMC stock has seen some decline from a year ago, when it was trading at $68.51, though it’s been on an upswing from an October low of $48.26.

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