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Good luck keeping up with Sirius XM Radio (Nasdaq: SIRI ) .
The satellite radio operator posted fourth-quarter results last night, a week ahead of the scheduled release date. The news even caught Sirius XM by surprise, since its rescheduled conference call to discuss yesterday's financials won't take place until tomorrow morning.
Was it worth the wait, or lack thereof? In many ways, it was. Pro forma revenue inched 16% higher to $644.1 million. The company's pro forma net loss of $248.5 million is nicely leaner than the $405.0 million it bled a year earlier.
The merger between Sirius and XM is already starting to bear fruit. The company was able to slash cash operating expenses by 22%, including 20% at the G&A level and even a surprising 4% reduction for the programming and content line item.
The encouraging takeaway here is that Sirius XM is posting positive pro forma adjusted income for the first time.
And now for the bad news
The report wasn't perfect, of course. The company closed out the quarter with just 82,945 more subscribers than when it started. It's great to see Sirius XM top the 19-million-subscriber mark, but this was also a company that as recently as early November was looking to land 200,000 net users during the period. Things must have deteriorated quickly; the company is now the only game in town when it comes to satellite radio, and it landed less than half of the net acquisitions it was banking on.
Then again, back in September, Sirius XM was telling investors that it was on track to close out the year with 19.5 million subscribers.
"How confident can you be that Sirius XM will hit the 19.1 million subscriber mark when it reports in two weeks?" I questioned earlier this month. "My prediction is that it manages to stay barely positive in gaining subs during the fourth quarter, but warns that it will lose net subscribers during this year's first quarter."
I guess my pessimism was warranted.
"These aren't dummies at Sirius XM just throwing darts to provide guidance," a reader responded, claiming that the company should have no problem landing 200,000 extra listeners during the period.
They're not dummies, but they are leaning toward duller and duller darts.
If the company isn't pressed into conceding that it will shed net subs for the current quarter during tomorrow's conference call, don't expect Sirius XM to kid itself by projecting sequential gains.
It certainly has the perfect scapegoats around if it decides to fess up. It can point to crushingly bleak sales at automotive partners like Ford (NYSE: F ) and General Motors (NYSE: GM ) . It can point to other entertainment subscription services like TiVo (Nasdaq: TIVO ) and DISH Network (Nasdaq: DISH ) that are also shedding accounts, and those services aren't trying to swim upstream against the current of plummeting car sales.
It's already feeling the sting of tightfisted radio listeners. Churn went slightly higher, from 1.7% to 1.8%; that may not necessarily be a big deal, but the news is grim on the conversion rate. Just 44.2% of car buyers are opting to pay for satellite radio once their free trials run out. The company's conversion rate clocked in at a healthier 51.4% a year ago. Conversions had already deteriorated to 47% during the company's third quarter. It's problematic if car buyers and automakers begin viewing satellite receivers as burdensome and costly paperweights.
Another puzzler in the report is that ad revenue shrank by 23% to $15.8 million, even though Sirius XM is watching over 10% more subscribers than it did a year ago. Commercial-free music is commercial-free, but what the heck is going on with the company's ad-bearing channels and sponsorship opportunities?
And now back to the good news
I did begin by saying that the report was mostly positive, so let's wrap this back around to close with a few other welcome developments.
Despite the regulator-mandated rate freeze and the advertising shrinkage, the average monthly revenue per user rose from $10.42 to $10.60. The uptick comes from the introduction of the "Best of" packages, where Sirius and XM subscribers pay $16.99 a month to receive the more popular channels from the rival service.
Work the math and you'll see that only a sliver of the company's user base is willing to pay $4 more a month for the extra content, but it's still a positive number. With acquisition costs falling from $83 to $70 per gross subscriber over the past year, it's refreshing to see revenue per user climb as the price of attraction dips.
The big number here, though, is the $31.8 million in positive pro forma adjusted profit that Sirius XM scored during the quarter. To put this into its proper perspective, Sirius XM was able to grow its revenue by $86.6 million during the quarter, while shrinking its operating expenses by $219.8 million.
The backdrop may not be ideal. Liberty Media (Nasdaq: LINTA ) beat out EchoStar (Nasdaq: SATS ) to bankroll Sirius XM's near-term survival, and that's good. However, the deal only pushed out maturities at chunky interest rates, bloating the company's share count by more than 2 billion along the way.
The company has plenty of things to be proud of when it addresses analysts tomorrow morning, but it will also have some explaining to do.
Speak up, Mel Karmazin. We're listening.
More news than static on Sirius XM: