Peter Kafka

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News Corp.: Conan’s Not Coming to Fox Just Yet; Amazon’s Ready to Bend on E-Book Pricing

Two interesting nuggets from a wide-ranging earnings call today:

  • News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch tried to lower expectations that his Fox broadcast network would hire Conan O’Brien.
  • Murdoch hinted that his book publishing unit is in line to get a new deal on e-books from Amazon, just as Macmillan has demanded (as will other publishers).

On the second point, here’s my on-the-fly transcription and paraphrasing of Murdoch’s comments about Amazon (AMZN), Apple (AAPL) and e-book pricing. It’s one of the most candid descriptions you’ll hear from a top executive about Big Media’s reluctance to embrace digital distribution at the expense of its existing system and revenue:

“We don’t like the Amazon model of $9.99….We think it really devalues books and hurts all the retailers of hardcover books. We’re not against electronic books; on the contrary, we like them very much” because they cost us less to distribute, “but we want some room to maneuver.” The Apple deal…“does allow some flexibility and higher prices” though e-books will still be lower than print versions. And now Amazon is willing to sit down with us again and renegotiate.

UPDATE: Here’s a more complete transcript from Seeking Alpha:

We don’t like the Amazon model of selling everything at $9.99. They don’t pay us that. They pay us the full wholesale price of $14 or whatever we charge. We think it really devalues books and it hurts all the retailers of the hard cover books. We are not against [inaudible] books. On the contrary we like them very much indeed. It is low cost to us and so on. But we want some room to maneuver in it. Amazon, sorry Apple in its agreement with us which has not been disclosed in detail does allow for a variety of slightly higher prices.

There will be prices very much less than the printed copies of books but still will not be fixed in a way that Amazon has been doing it. It appears that Amazon is now ready to sit down with us again and renegotiate pricing.

Again, it’s impossible to stress how scarring the music labels’ experience has been for Big Media. And they’re determined not to repeat the experience. Their takeaway, though, seems to be that they can stave off digital distribution by keeping prices high and inventory relatively scarce. Hard to believe consumers are going to go for that.


Earlier

A first glimpse at News Corp.’s fourth-quarter earnings (which, due to the company’s weird fiscal calendar, is technically the company’s Q2 for 2010): Pretty good. And much better than a year ago (thankfully). After factoring out one-time charges, the company posted earnings of 25 cents on revenue of $8.7 billion.

The Street was looking for earnings of 20 cents on revenue of $8.23 billion, and analysts were also hoping the company would boost its earnings forecast, due in part to a bump from the ginormous success of “Avatar.” No word on guidance in the earnings release, though.

I’ll pick through the release for other worthwhile nuggets for the next few minutes. And then the real show begins at 4:30 Eastern, when the company’s earnings call–easily the most entertaining one in its peer group due to the censor-free presence of CEO Rupert Murdoch–begins. We’ll be looking for commentary on his battle/negotiation with Google (GOOG), upcoming content deals with Apple and the iPad, his thoughts on paid content in general, a dash of political commentary or two, and an update on the turnaround effort at MySpace.

From the release: A pretty nice quarter at most of the conglomerate’s divisions, including the previously battered broadcast TV and newspaper groups. News Corp. says print revenue at The Wall Street Journal was up five percent and ads on the Journal’s digital network were up 17 percent.

MySpace and the company’s other digital properties, shuffled into the “other” category, don’t get much of a mention, but don’t seem to have done much, not surprisingly.

But News Corp does mention that digital media earnings were down $32 million compared with a year ago, “principally due to lower search and advertising revenue.” And the company lost $29 million on “digital media dispositions”–i.e., the fire sale/giveaways of properties like Rotten Tomatoes and Photobucket.

Here’s the breakdown by segment (click table to enlarge):

Liveblog

CFO Dave DeVoe: “Extremely pleased” with the quarter.

Movies: Revenue up due to decent DVD sales (no MGM problem here). Also high costs due to “Avatar,” but big profits from the movie will be coming in during the next couple quarters.

Broadcast TV: Local ads are improving; the telecom, fast food, finance categories are all improving.

Cable: Revenue is up 18 percent. Affiliate revenue is up 21 percent (more money for Fox News subs), and there was a “single-digit” boost in ad dollars.

Newspapers: Journal dollars are up, operating costs down. Ad revenue got better as the quarter progressed.

Books: Revenue up, expenses down.

“Other”/MySpace: Digital media revenue down, but cost-cutting helped trim losses.

News Corp. is boosting its dividend by 25 percent.

Guidance: The company’s operating income growth rate is expected to grow from single digits to the high teens. Better than anticipated: Film group, TV and cable. But revenue goals for digital media, including MySpace, will take longer than anticipated.

Murdoch sings the praises of content. [I will not argue with him, for now]. “Avatar” is awesome, he says, a “harbinger of fundamental change in the industry.” Also really good: “Alvin and the Chipmunks.” Fun to hear Rupe say “Alvin and the Chipmunks.”

WSJ is the No.1 paper in U.S. in terms of circulation, influence, quality. WSJ.com is a “digital model for newspapers around the world.”

Fox News Channel’s audience is both “loyal and lucrative.” Roger Ailes is doing an “admirable job” [translation: Bite me, Michael Wolff--the author of a recent Murdoch biography].

Last year, Murdoch says, News Corp.’s pay-to-play ideas sounded nutty, but now “the content clan has gathered around our ideas.” Consumers must pay and will pay “to be entertained and informed.” All those awesome new gadgets being made in China and sold at the Consumer Electronics Show need content or they’re worthless. Content, content, content. Get it? Content, content, content.

Murdoch says he’ll be wringing more dollars from cable operators. And “when it comes to online news, we’ll be changing that model too,” adding that News Corp. is in “substantive conversations with device makers on developing subscription models” to deliver content. And don’t forget about 3-D!

Not performing well but “long-term growth drivers”: Sky Italia satellite service. Also Sky Deutschland. And MySpace is “not yet where we want it.” In the last quarter, however, MySpace “started to see signs of traffic stabilization.”

Shout-outs for Chase Carey and other managers (but not by name).

Q&A

Question: How big a deal is retransmission consent in coming years? $40 million a month? $100 million a month?

Chase Carey: No numbers, but it’s going to be a “transforming event.” We have two of top 10 distributors done, more coming. It’s a three- or four-year process to knock these deals out.

Q: Does this fix the broadcast model?

Carey: “Yes, I guess you could say simplistically, it fixes it.”

Q: What’s the timing on an “Avatar” DVD, and what about a sequel? Also, how do TV ads look this year?

Murdoch: For “Avatar,” we think about 60 percent of profits will be in the next six months. Which means the DVD will be coming “as soon as possible,” but the movie will stay in cinemas for a while because we’re doing huge dollars in theaters still. Sequel? “Very early talks about it. Jim has ideas for one. We haven’t come to any agreement with him….Being Jim Cameron, I wouldn’t hold your breath for an early one.” Asked about the economics of a future release (“Will you keep the same revenue split?”), Rupe sort of rumbles and growls and sort of doesn’t have much to say. “Ask anybody; it is very easy to drop a $100 million in a hurry on a film, and we’d like to lay off some of the risk.”

Carey: TV trends for this year are “positive.”

Murdoch: TV stations will be up 18 or 19 percent, but last year was terrible. We’re still down compared with two years ago. Hard to see more than a quarter in advance. In newspapers, it’s hard to see more than a few weeks.

[Missed a question on Sky Italia here.]

Q: What are growth prospects for cable networks? They’ve been driven a lot recently by new subscriber fees. How much longer can you get those boosts?

Murdoch: Overall, “we think we have great potential for growth. Quite a long way to go yet.” Look at how NBCU’s USA is growing.

Carey: In the U.S., we’re moving to “quality over quantity”–we can wring more out of foreign exchange, etc. Fox News is only getting more powerful; it has “great upside.”

Q: Regarding newspapers, what growth came from organic increase versus currency fluctuations?

The majority is from foreign exchange.

Q: Does your guidance assume that the “Avatar” DVD is coming in the next two quarters?

Murdoch: “Yes, but it won’t be 3-D” [which I don't think the analyst was asking about].

Q: Back to retransmission consent: You’ve been getting more and more money from cable guys. Why can’t you get $4 or $5 per subscription for Fox broadcast subs?

Murdoch: “We’re modest people.”

Carey: Hyuk, hyuk. Real answer: It takes time. “We try to approach this constructively. We’ve built businesses with [cable guys], we’ve built valuable cable channels” [translation: patience!]. We want to extract more without killing the cable guys.

Murdoch: That said, we’re asking for the same thing [for broadcast channels] that the cable networks are getting, which “certainly won’t kill the cable companies.”

Q: Please talk about value of film libraries (i.e., MGM). They’re generating big operating profits for cable now. How long will this last?

Murdoch: Regarding the MGM auction, “you can count us out of that one altogether” because others will pay more than we’re willing. And we’re not pursuing the Miramax catalog at all.

Carey: A film library by itself, without new stuff coming through, is a “depreciating asset.”

Q: On guidance: You say the ad market getting better, etc., but it sounds like you’re saying Ebidta growth is slowing.

Murdoch: “We honestly do not have any visibility about the last quarter.”

Q: On books/e-books/Apple, what’s going on with that?

Murdoch: We don’t like the Amazon model of $9.99….We think it really devalues books and hurts all the retailers of hardcover books. We’re not against electronic books; on the contrary, we like them very much, lower costs to us, but we want some room to maneuver. The Apple deal does allow “some flexibility and higher prices” though e-books will still be lower than print. And now Amazon is willing to sit down with us again.

Press Q&A

Q: What’s up with plans to charge for newspapers on the Web?

Murdoch: “Not ready to announce yet [long pause]. We won’t be ready yet to make an announcement.” A “lot of talks with a lot of people.” There will be more to say within the next two months, Murdoch adds.

Q: Are you still going to fall $100 million short on the Google deal?

Murdoch: Yes. People using social networks don’t use search a great deal. Facebook has seen this, too. It’s “really too early to make confident predictions…but from going down, we’re beginning to go up.”

Q: Can we get some details about Time Warner Cable (TWC) deal?

Nope.

What about Conan O’Brien on late night?

Murdoch: If the programming people can show us we can do it and make a profit on it, we’ll do it in a flash. I’m sure there have been conversations with Conan, but “if you mean real negotiations, no.”

[Missed two questions here.]

Q: Another late-night question: If you do go into negotiations with Conan, how do you placate your affiliates?

Murdoch: It’s a different deal than NBC. They screwed up 10 pm, which reduced the lead-in to local news. Our affiliates run syndicated programming at 11:30, though, so it will take time to adjust there.

Call ended. This one seemed short to me.

More or less redundant disclosure: News Corp. (NWS) owns this Web site.


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