Investing in Viacom Is No Kids' Stuff

These are good times for Viacom (NASDAQ: VIAB  ) shareholders.

And if management can make good on its pledges, the future will continue to look promising.

The catalyst for the optimism is the turnaround in its Nickelodeon unit, which provides programs for little kids and their mommies and daddies. That revival and a new Internet streaming arrangement with Amazon helped pave the way to show a 20% jump in profits in its last quarter, the company said earlier this month.

A few years ago, Wall Street had concerns about Nickelodeon's health. Ratings had tumbled. Ad sales were a worry. And growth seemed to be up for grabs at the time.

Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman told investors that July represented Nickelodeon's "sixth straight month of year-over-year ratings growth."

Emblematic of Viacom's strength, the revenues at the company's media networks operation, which encompasses Nickelodeon, MTV, and Comedy Central, among others, jumped 13% to $2.57 billion in the three-month period, surpassing what Wall Street had hoped for.

Now if Viacom can get Paramount Pictures, the filmed-entertainment hub, to duplicate this kind of resurgence, there will be even more good news for stockholders. Its revenues gained 15% to $1.16 billion. Profits, however, dropped by more than half, according to Viacom, because of the timing difficulties of two of its movies, World War Z and Star Trek Into Darkness.

"Next quarter will show significant profitability for Paramount, including from these two films," Dauman informed Wall Streeters during an earnings conference call. "But it will likely be moderately less than we anticipated due to the crowded tentpole schedule this summer and the delay of certain film licensing deals into next fiscal year."

In total, Viacom had net income of $643 million, or $1.31 a share, above the $534 million, or $1.01 a share, in the identical three-month span last year.

In May, the entertainment company and content generator declared a second-quarter dividend of $0.30 a share for its Class A and Class B stock, representing a 9% hike from its $0.275 per-share payout of the previous quarter.

The regular dividend payment comes to a $1.20-a-share yearly dividend. It yields 1.7% and is based on the closing price of Viacom's stock dated on May 22.

Plus, more good news for investors: Pivotal Research media analyst Brian Wieser recently announced a new price target of $103, a jump from the prior $78 figure.

Wieser told investors:

Viacom is, along with Interpublic, our preferred stock within our coverage universe, presently. While financial strategies are responsible for much of our target increase, the fundamentals of the business are improving faster than we expected, and certainly even faster than consensus expectations. Consequently, we think that investors will view Viacom with increasing favor over coming quarters, further reducing implied costs of capital and boosting multiples.

Viacom had been hampered by nagging questions about children's viewing habits, a cloud that has since passed. These points cut to the heart of Nickelodeon, one of Viacom's key cable properties, a demographic that Netflix took aim at.

Part of Viacom's broadcasting strategy is to hook viewers at a young age (or their youthful parents) through appealing programming at Nickelodeon. As they get a little older, then, Viacom hopes they'll turn to MTV, one of the great global brand names in all of television. Finally, when they outgrow MTV, Viacom hopes to ensnare them with VH1.

The concerns about kiddie program trends "were dramatically removed from reality and missed the key point that advertisers who buy from Viacom's kid-targeted properties do so because it continues to produce more on-targeted properties than any alternative," Wieser stressed.

And as The New York Times noted, Viacom Chairman Sumner Redstone was so excited about the results that "for the second quarter in a row he called Mr. Dauman 'the wisest man I have ever known'" during that earnings bulletin to analysts.

As someone who has listened to his share of Redstone's characteristic bluster during Viacom conference calls, I had to smile when I read his comments about his deputy, Dauman. (Of course, I also couldn't help but wonder if Redstone might consider his other chief lieutenant, Leslie Moonves, who runs CBS, to be, perhaps, the world's second-smartest person.)

Normally, Redstone will leap into invoking hyperbole to drum up Wall Street's support for Viacom and its stock price.

If Viacom continues to perform, then his hyperbole simply won't be necessary.


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