IBTimes Feature: Murdoch's Woes Won't Stop The News Corp. Juggernaut: Analysts

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on May 09 2012 2:23 PM

While British lawmakers call Rupert Murdoch unfit to run News Corp. (NYSE: NWSA), the giant media conglomerate's shareholders might disagree.

News Corp. said Wednesday it had $8.4 billion in fiscal third quarter revenue, beating Reuters' estimate of $8.25 billion and the prior-year revenue of $8.25 billion. Earnings per share, excluding one-time items, were 37 cents, up from 26 cents in the previous year and above the 30 cents projected by analysts.

The company's stock surged 5.26 percent in after-hours trading to $20.40. It is now up over 20 percent from a six-month low in November and far above the depths of March 2009, when it traded at $6.

Even as the 81-year-old media magnate resists calls for his resignation in the wake of alleged phone-hacking and police bribes by reporters and editors at the News of World, Murdoch's defunct 2.6 million circulation British tabloid, his empire is shrugging off the worst-after effects of the scandal. Among them: The closure of the 168-year-old newspaper; more than $100 million in legal fees; and a $162 million revenue decline in News Corp.'s publishing division during the last three months.

The primary reason, analysts say, is that while News Corp. may be best known for its publications like the Wall Street Journal, Barron's, the Sunday Times and the New York Post, its real value lies elsewhere.

It's really an entertainment company, said Michael Corty, an analyst with Morningstar Inc. The reason you buy the stock is for the assets to generate a lot of cash. Newspapers don't do a lot of that anymore, unfortunately. The business model is really tough.

Indeed, the legal fees that News Corp. has incurred for its British escapades, combined with the demise of the News of the World and declining print and online advertising revenue across the board, is virtually a rounding error on the company's earnings statement.

At its core, News Corp. is a cable and satellite network that offers international news and regional sporting events and produces television shows. Around 60 percent of the company's adjusted operating income comes from programming, including Fox News Channel and Fox Sports, which is also its fastest-growing division, with revenue up 14 percent and operating income up 22 percent last year.

In terms of viewers, the company's crown jewel is Fox News, the cable network in the U.S. headed by political veteran Roger Ailes and known for its conservative personalities like Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity. Fox's ratings consistently trounce CNN's, which is owned by Time Warner Inc. (NYSE: TWX), and MSNBC's, owned by Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA).

Its television entertainment division also had strong results with profit tripling during 2011 thanks to hit shows like American Idol, X-Factor, and The Simpsons. These juggernauts more than make up for the struggles of Fox Business Network, which debuted in October 2007 as a challenger to CNBC and Bloomberg television. The channel has had consistently low ratings since its inception, and in February, it canceled its entire primetime lineup. In April, FBN's daytime shows were shuffled. (A lone bright spot: Lou Dobbs Tonight, anchored by the former longtime CNN reporter, beat CNBC in viewership.)

News Corp.'s second-largest earner is film production, which accounted for 25 percent of the company's operating income in the last six months of 2011. Twentieth Century Fox's recent blockbusters Rise of the Planet of the Apes and X-Men First Class grossed more than $468 million and $352 million in worldwide box offices, respectively, helping grow News Corp.'s film segment during that time.

The performance of the company's more robust units has fueled News Corp.'s additional forays into print and digital journalism operations, which continue apace despite the depressed advertising sector and weak publishing results.

In April 2010, the Wall Street Journal unveiled a new section, Greater New York, and hired scores of new reporters. In February 2011, News Corp. launched The Daily, a tablet-only news publication that cost News Corp. around $56 million to run in 2011.

Although the Daily created a buzz for its bold format and high-profile hires, an advertising executive told Bloomberg in September that the publication had an average of 120,000 readers a week, less than a quarter of the 500,000 that Murdoch said would allow the publication to break even. And that circulation number likely includes readers who are using a two-week free trial.

The Daily's costs are just a tiny part of the News Corp.'s overall businesses, but the e-newspaper's failure to gain leverage may indicate future vulnerability for the company as the Internet and other digital platforms gain in importance.

In our opinion, the News Corp. operates in an attractive, high-growth industry, but management are not adapting sufficiently to the new disruptive media trends and changing industry dynamics, wrote Indigo Equity Research in a March 5 research note, citing the $5.7 billion Dow Jones acquisition and the failure of MySpace, which was spun off in 2011.

News Corp. is focused on traditional media and is relatively weak in digital media, the researchers added. Murdoch runs News Corp. as a family business. ... In summary, News Corp. is likely to underperform.

But the British scandal has clouded Murdoch's future and the company's succession plan.

James Murdoch, his 39-year-old-son, was long seen as the heir apparent. But he became associated with the News of the World allegations as head of News International, News Corp.'s UK publishing arm, although he denied knowledge of the hacking.

Still, the alleged ties were enough to lead to his resignation from News International and also British Sky Broadcasting Group, where he was chairman. News Corp. owns 39 percent of the satellite TV venture.

I am aware that my role as chairman could become a lightning rod for BSkyB and I believe that my resignation will help to ensure that there is no false connection with events at a separate organization, James Murdoch said in an April statement.

Because of the scandal, News Corp. also had to drop its attempt to buy the remaining 61 percent of BSkyB. Murdoch may also be forced by Britain's communications regulator to sell its current $7.5 billion stake in the satellite provider, which reported record profits of $8.24 billion in the last nine months. News Corp. currently has Sky satellite assets in six countries as well other satellite holdings, most notably STAR Group Ltd., which operates in China, India and other parts of Asia.

With James Murdoch out of the way, Chase Carey, News Corp.'s president and chief operating officer, has been cited as a likely successor to Murdoch, although the founder would probably retain the title of chairman. Indeed, last Wednesday, News Corp.'s board expressed full confidence in the elder Murdoch.

Publicly the company downplays any structural or endemic problems but rather blames its woes, particularly in the publishing division, on external conditions.

The impact from the closure of The News of the World has been exacerbated by a very tough economy, said Carey in a February earnings call. But as we said many times, we're committed to making things right.

In other words, News Corp.'s not about to let a little spying and hacking scandal get in the way of its goal to overtake Walt Disney Corp. as the world's largest entertainment company.

Angelo Young contributed research. This article has been revised to reflect the description of Fox News Channel.

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