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AMC sustains Q1 ad sales decline, eyes 'meaningful' sequential improvement

AMC Networks Inc., which opened 2018 with a high-single-digit advertising decline tied to audience erosion and reduced the number of original episodes, is expecting sequential improvement in the second quarter and a healthy upfront selling season.

Despite higher pricing, ad revenues declined 8.8% to $226 million during the three months ended March 31, a decrease that CFO Sean Sullivan said on the company's May 10 earnings call was anticipated in part due to fewer episodes of AMC’s zombie franchise "The Walking Dead" and companion show, "Talking Dead," coupled with "some delivery pressures."

Looking to the second quarter, Sullivan said the programmer is eyeing "meaningful sequential improvement" with advertising revenues, as its national networks unit is poised for amelioration tied to market conditions and "more favorable comps related to the timing of the airing of our originals."

COO Edward Carroll said the company is in mid-season with "The Walking Dead" and "Into The Badlands" on AMC, "Killing Eve" on BBC America (US) and "Braxton Family Values" on WE tv (US), all of which are performing well. "We see strong increases in terms of pricing," he said. "So the variables in the current quarter will be the continued performance, strong performance of our shows in terms of audience and the continued scattered demand for originals."

Relative to the upfront, Carroll said the company is well-positioned with only five networks, as it does not have "an overabundance of inventory … We know we have the type of content that advertisers are seeking. And I do think in this upfront, you might say that advertisers feel that they're under some pressure to get their money down alongside the kind of shows that they want to be associated with."

President and CEO Joshua Sapan said the company will be deploying "new data-driven products to help advertisers target audiences more efficiently and with more granularity."

Meanwhile, the company is also deriving gains from ad-free subscription service, AMC Premiere, which launched to Comcast Corp.'s Xfinity customers in 2017. The company recently reached a deal with sports-centric virtual provider fuboTV, and Sapan said it will soon bow on YouTube TV.

Sullivan said the service allows AMC Networks to monetize its content within the traditional ad sales environment and with those who elect to view the programming, sans messaging. "It economically allows us to live in two different manners of economic exploitation, and we think that's very good for our health," he said.

Total revenues in the first quarter increased 2.9% to $740.8 million from $720.2 million, while operating income edged up 0.9% to $233.7 million.

National networks, comprising AMC, WE tv, BBC America, IFC, Sundance TV and TV production business, AMC Studios, posted a 2.9% revenue increase to $633.0 million, while operating income inched up 0.1% to $249.9 million.

Segment growth was led by a 10.8% increase in distribution revenues to $407.0 million, tied to gains in content licensing and subscription fees. As noted, advertising revenue declined 8.8% to $226 million, stemming from lower delivery, notably declines from flagship series, “The Walking Dead,” and the timing of the airing of original programming, countered to some extent by higher pricing.

Revenues at the international and other segment, including the company’s international programming business, independent film distribution unit IFC Films, and subscription streaming services, Sundance Now and Shudder, grew 4.3% to $111.4 million. The results reflected the favorable impact of foreign currency exchange and increases from the subscription streaming services, offset by the absence of the Amsterdam-based media logistics facility that was sold in July 2017.

The unit narrowed its operating loss by 12.5% to $16.8 million, stemming from the increased revenues, as well as a decrease in depreciation and amortization and restructuring expense offset by higher operating costs.

Net income attributable to stockholders reached $156.9 million, or $2.54 per share, from $136.2 million, or $1.98 per share.

The S&P Capital IQ consensus EPS estimate for the just-ended quarter was $2.20 on a normalized basis and $2.13 on a GAAP measure.