News Corp chief Robert Thomson was cautiously optimistic on the company’s first quarterly earnings call for fiscal 2015 from New York this morning, giving the company’s shares a lift.
Freely sprinkling natural analogies for the slow turnaround underway in the newspaper business, Thomson said the “advertising headwinds had dissipated” and “green shoots had taken root”.
Trading conditions in Australian newspapers had improved, Thomson said, especially in local advertising: “If I was to typify it topographically, the Murray River had silted up and that river is now flowing again.”
Despite the encouraging trends, when pressed by Citi media analyst Justin Diddams, Thomson stopped short of forecasting a return to revenue growth in the newspaper business towards the end of 2014-15. “It’s probably not reasonable to expect us to give you a forecast along those lines,” Thomson said.
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The takeout is that newspapers in Australia, the US and UK remain a drag on the company, notwithstanding small signs of improvement in the three months to September. Sales revenue and earnings again fell in the news and information business, which remains the 39%-Murdoch-clan-controlled company’s single major area of operations around the world. That was offset by higher contributions from REA Group, the digital real estate arm based in Australia, Harper Collins book publishing (boosted by the purchase of Mills and Boon publisher, Harlequin) and small improvements at Fox Sports in Australia. Together they saw the group profit rise to US$88 million for the latest quarter, from US$38 million. Earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation rose to US$170 million from US$141 million. News’ Australian shares jumped 7% this morning, rising $1.21 to $18.17.
But the News and Information services publishing arm remains a dead weight — its revenues still dominate the company, accounting for two-thirds (or US$1.451 billion) of the total group revenue for the quarter of $2.15, up a whole US$78 million from the $2.07 billion in the same quarter of the previous year when revenues in the news and information business totalled $1.5 billion. Revenues for the first quarter of fiscal 2015 decreased US$44 million, or 3%, compared to the prior year. Total segment advertising revenues declined 7%, driven by weakness primarily in the print advertising market.
Circulation and subscription revenues declined 1%, primarily due to the decline in professional information business revenues at Dow Jones, the absence of results from LMG and lower print circulation volume, partially offset by cover price increases in the U.K. and at several Australian newspapers as well as higher subscription pricing at The Wall Street Journal and WSJ.com. Adjusted revenues declined 3% compared to the prior year. Earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation for the News and information segment fell US$28 million in the quarter, or 21%, (to US$105 million, from US$133 million) as compared to the prior year
Fleshing out the minimal published figures — and without giving precise dollar figures — News’ CFO Bedi Singh said Australian newspaper advertising revenues fell 5% during the September quarter, compared with a year earlier, and 6% in local currency terms. These were “lower declines” when compared with the reported ad revenue fall of 16% in the June quarter, compared with the previous year, and minus 11% in local currency terms. Total Australian newspaper circulation revenue fell 1%, Singh said, and News Corp in Australia recorded undisclosed growth in EBITDA due to cost management, lower ad revenue declines, and cover price increases. “Our hope is to show stabilisation [in the Australian newspaper business] this year and I think we’re off to an encouraging start,” Singh said.
Thomson said News Corp’s Australian team under chief Julian Clarke was doing a “sterling job retooling the business”.
The cable TV business centred on Fox Sports (100% owned) saw a rise of US$7 million in revenues “due to higher affiliate pricing and increased subscribers. Segment EBITDA in the quarter increased $3 million, or 10%, due to higher revenues, partially offset by higher programming rights and other production costs. Adjusted revenues increased 4% and Adjusted Segment EBITDA increased 10%, compared to the prior year. ”
The 50% owned Foxtel saw a small US$10 million rise in revenues to US$728 million from US$718 million, “primarily driven by the impact of foreign currency fluctuations and growth in subscriber revenues”.
News said Foxtel’s EBITDA “increased $US4 million to $US225 million from $US221 million due to subscriber revenue growth, partially offset by increased operating expenses resulting from the impact of foreign currency fluctuations. Total closing subscribers were approximately 2.6 million as of September 30, 2014, a 5% increase compared to the prior year period. Cable and satellite churn improved to 10.9% from 12.1% in the prior year.” That subscriber number though was unchanged from June 30.
Foxtel’s “operating income for the three months ended September 30, 2014 and 2013 after depreciation and amortization of $88 million and $86 million, respectively, was $US137 million and $US135 million, respectively.”
Foxtel unveiled new pricing on Monday, halving the price of the base package for new subscribers, but Thomson declined to say whether this would lead to lower top-line revenues. “It’s a little early,” he said, but “call centre activity has been encouraging”.