Logo of jester cap with thought bubble with words 'Fool Transcripts' below it

Image source: The Motley Fool.

Central European Media Enterprises (NASDAQ:CETV)
Q1 2019 Earnings Call
April 30, 2019 9:00 a.m. ET

Contents:

  • Prepared Remarks
  • Questions and Answers
  • Call Participants

Prepared Remarks:

Operator

Hello, my name is Natalie, and I'll be your conference operator today. At this time, I would like to welcome everyone to the Central European Media Enterprises first-quarter 2019 earnings conference call. [Operator instructions] As a reminder, this conference call is being recorded today, April 30, 2019. It is now my pleasure to turn the floor over to Mark Kobal, head of investor relations at CME, who will be our moderator today.

Mr. Kobal, you may begin your conference.

Mark Kobal -- Head of Investor Relations

Thank you, Natalie. Good afternoon, and good morning, everyone, and welcome to CME's first-quarter 2019 earnings conference call. We issued our earnings press release earlier today, a copy of which is available on our website, cme.net, along with a brief presentation that we will refer to during this call. On the call today are Michael Del Nin and Christoph Mainusch, co-chief executive officers of CME; Dave Sturgeon, chief financial officer; and Daniel Penn, general counsel.

Our presentation today will contain forward-looking statements. Actual results may vary materially from those expressed or implied due to various factors. Important factors that contribute to such risks include but are not limited to the risk factors and other cautionary statements in our SEC filings, including the Form 10-Q filed earlier today. Forward-looking statements speak only as of the date, and we undertake no obligation to publicly update or review any forward-looking statements whether as a result of new information, future developments or otherwise.

During this call, we will also refer to certain financial information that is not in U.S. GAAP. Description of these non-GAAP financial measures, as well as the reconciliations to the most comparable GAAP measures is available on our website in the appendix to the earnings call presentation. Additional information may also be found in Note 19 to our financial statements in the Form 10-Q.

And now, I'll hand the call over to Michael and Christoph.

Michael Del Nin -- Co-Chief Executive Officer

Thanks, Mark. And thanks to everyone for joining us today. There's a lot to talk about on today's call but the headline is simply this. The year has gotten off to an outstanding start.

These results exceed the expectations that we had when we gave guidance on our last earnings call and reflect higher levels of profitability, stronger margins and greater cash flow generation in just about any other Q1 in the history of the company. Top-line results were affected by the weakening of our currencies against the dollar since Q1 of last year. As a result, overall net revenues declined by 7% at actual rates. But excluding the impact of FX, our top line grew 2% to $147 million.

This is a solid result, especially given the impact of sector taxes introduced in Romania and the phasing of advertising spending around Easter this year. As expected, the later timing of that holiday in 2019 shifted spending into Q2 across our markets and held back TV ad revenues in the first quarter. They have rebounded strongly in April, and in fact, we are tracking toward 15% growth in consolidated TV ad revenues this month with around 20% growth in the Czech Republic and Romania compared to last year. This means that year to date, through the end of April, which takes into account the impact of the timing of Easter, TV ad revenues are about 3% higher than the same period last year.

That growth would have been even higher but for the implementation of new incremental taxes in Romania imposed in the first quarter of 2019 on companies operating in certain industries like telecoms and financial services. While we didn't see much of an impact on the spending patterns of these companies until the second half of the quarter, it clearly resulted in a reduction in advertising, especially in March. But given the sharp rebound we're seeing there in April, we are encouraged that its impact over the full year will be more muted. An increase in net revenues at constant rates, together with the reduction of overall costs drove OIBDA growth of 8% at actual rates.

And even more remarkable 18% at constant rates to $38 million. Every single country experienced growth in profit at constant rates over last year with a particularly strong improvement in Bulgaria, which thanks to significant cost savings toward margins, more than doubled over the first quarter of 2018. Overall, consolidated margins grew a remarkable 360 basis points to 26%, the highest OIBDA margin in more than a decade and among the best in the company's history. But our ability to convert OIBDA into cash is perhaps the most impressive result for this quarter.

Thanks to the very strong performance of our operations over the last few months, unlevered free cash flow for the quarter reached $95 million, an increase of more than 30% over the same period in 2018. That helped drive down our net leverage ratio to three times at the end of March, a half turn improvement in just three months and almost two full turns lower than the end of Q1 last year. With further cash generation and improvement in profitability, our net leverage ratio should fall below three times during the current quarter, pushing down our average cost of borrowing to less than 3.4% at the bottom end of our current pricing grids, and its lowest level ever. Now I'll hand the call over to Christoph.

Christoph Mainusch -- Co-Chief Executive Officer

Thank you, Michael. Good afternoon and good morning to everyone. The year has certainly started out well from both an operational and financial perspective. We launched the spring season during the first quarter, and the main channel in four countries increased year-to-date audience share in both prime time and all day.

Our focus remains on efficient program spending for the most popular television schedules. The resulting reach for advertisers provide the resources necessary to continue investing in high-quality local content. Our content and the popularity of our channels has also supported our strategy to diversify revenues. At constant rates, carriage fees and subscription revenues once again grew at double digits in Q1.

And we have now seen this level of growth in carriage fees for nine consecutive quarters. In addition to driving strong margin, growth across our businesses, carriage fees have transformed the predictability and resilience of our revenue streams. This is highlighted by the fact that in four segments, we had margins of more than 25% in Q1, a significant improvement in profitability and especially in quarters that are traditionally weaker for advertising. Turning to TV ad market, we estimate spending of the countries in which we operate declined overall by 4% at constant rates in the first quarter of 2019, but much of this related to either the phasing of spending around Easter or the introduction of the new sector taxes in Romania.

Even with these headwinds, we grew our TV ad revenues in three segments and increased market share in four countries. In Romania, there may be ongoing impact on the level of demand from advertisers in the sectors affected by these new taxes implemented in the first quarter. Based on the level of spending commitments for 2019, however, we believe this will be largely offset by additional spending from other clients. Looking at year-to-date results, through the end of April, which includes additional spending around Easter, we actually grew 3% and especially, in our two largest markets, the Czech Republic and Romania, where our TV ad revenues increased around 20% in the month of April.

Furthermore, if you look at the four countries other than Romania, growth is even stronger. In the first four months of the year, our TV ad revenues from those businesses actually grew by 5%, led by an impressive 8% increase in the Czech Republic, one of the strongest the market has seen in quite some time. I'll now turn things over to Dave for the segment results.

Dave Sturgeon -- Chief Financial Officer

Thanks, Christoph. Segment results begin on Slide 12 of our presentation. In the Czech Republic, TV ad revenues increased by 4% at constant rates in the first quarter, reflecting list price increases in the sales policy for 2019. This was partially offset by selling fewer GRPs due in part to the timing of Easter compared to last year and because in previous years, advertisers have been shifting more spending into the traditionally slower period for advertising, which included spending around the Olympics in 2018.

Carriage fees and subscription revenues increased by 19% due to an increase in the number of subscribers, as well as price inflation in existing contracts. Cost increased due to marketing activities to celebrate the 25th anniversary of TV Nova Broadcasting in the Czech Republic. There was also an increase in staff cost related to personnel changes to support our digital initiatives. In Romania, TV ad revenues declined in the quarter due to lower spending from advertisers directly impacted by the new sector taxes as well as phasing related to the timing of Easter.

Carriage fees and subscription revenues increased by 4% due to increase in the average number of subscribers. We reduced content cost by 5% at constant rates primarily from broadcasting more cost effective foreign-acquired content and fewer sports rights. This was partially offset by additional episodes of certain local titles when compared to the schedule in 2018. Other costs declined due to reversal of a legal provision, as well as lower bad debt charges.

Our TV ad revenues in Slovakia decreased due to less advertising being sold in March, resulting from the later timing of the Easter. The decrease in volumes sold in the quarter was mostly offset by a significant increase in average prices, which reflected both higher prices in the sales policies for 2019 as well as more efficient delivery of inventory this year. Carriage fees and subscription revenues increased by 9% from higher prices in new contracts. Costs decreased by 4% due to low professional fees, lower personnel costs and lower transmission fees.

In Bulgaria, TV ad revenues increased by 3%, reflecting list price increases in the sales policy for 2019, as well as selling more GRPs. Carriage fees and subscription revenues increased by 8% due to price inflation in existing contract and growth in the number of subscribers. Costs decreased by 14%, primarily due to lower content costs. This included reduced sports rights, and we also replaced our locally produced telenovela broadcast in 2018 with a more cost-effective foreign section title acquired from the region.

And in Slovenia, TV ad revenues increased by 1%. A spending from new, smaller clients more than offset lower levels of advertising for larger multinationals that have spent more around the Olympics in 2018, as well as a reduction in ads placed related to the timing of Easter. Carriage fees and subscription revenues increased by 31%. due to price inflation in existing agreements, as well as growth in subscribers.

Cost increased due to higher content costs as the spring season started earlier than in 2018 and more attractive foreign-acquired titles were broadcast this year compared to last year. And with that, I'll hand the call back to Michael.

Michael Del Nin -- Co-Chief Executive Officer

Thanks, Dave. The numbers we reported today continue to demonstrate our established track record of delivering improving financial results. and just as importantly, reinforced our expectations for continued growth through the rest of 2019. The macro backdrop in our markets remains positive.

GDP growth in each of the countries in which we operate continues to exceed the average growth rate for Western Europe, a trend that has been ongoing for more than 4 years. And this is forecast to continue for the duration of 2019 and beyond, which should support growth in overall TV ad revenues. As a result of the impressive start to the year and the stronger performance that we expect through the end of 2019, we are raising guidance and now anticipate OIBDA growth at constant rates in the 12% to 14% range for 2019. Similarly, cash generation will remain strong this year.

And we now expect unlevered free cash flow will increase around 10% at actual rates at the high end of our previous guidance range despite the increased strength of the dollar. While it is unclear how long these FX headwinds will last, at today's rates, those guidance levels would result in around $240 million of OIBDA and $170 million of unlevered free cash flow. Following our EUR 60 million debt repayment in January, run rate interest costs are under $27 million annually, meaning free cash flow generation should approach about $145 million this year. These results, adjusted for FX, keep 2019 on track to be the most profitable year in the company's history.

And on the heels of the rapid growth in deleveraging seen over the last few years, this sets us up for a future marked by significant value creation for shareholders. And this notion of value creation is the foundation for the strategic review that we announced last month. While we don't have further updates on that today, we think that the outlook provided underscores the value we continue to generate by executing on our long-term plan. I'll now turn things back over to Mark so that we can take your questions.

Mark Kobal -- Head of Investor Relations

Thank you, Michael. That concludes our prepared remarks, and we will now move to the Q&A portion of the call. So Natalie, please go ahead and open the lines for questions. 

Questions and Answers:

Operator

[Operator instructions] And I now turn you back over to Mr. Kobal.

Mark Kobal -- Head of Investor Relations

All right, thank you. Our first call this afternoon is coming from Pavel Ryska, J&T Bank.

Pavel Ryska -- J and T Bank -- Analyst

So first of all, again, congratulations on a very strong quarter. Again, I have two questions now. So the first one concerns Romania. I was wondering, what exactly happened during the first quarter because you said that you didn't really see a big impact at the beginning of the year while in March, it was more pronounced, and then again in April, it's reversed a little.

So I was wondering, do you think that the decision of the Romanian government to kind of step back from the original proposal of sector taxes had any impact on the spending patterns of your clients? And also, do you think that this reversal could affect the rest of the year so that the impact doesn't have to be as profound as it was in the past few months? And my second question, I understood you said a while ago that you were not going to provide anymore news on the strategic review that you announced a few weeks ago. But I was wondering, you mentioned in the strategic review that all options were on the table, including the sale of assets, and I imagine this could be a certain split of the company. And I was wondering, from the perspective of margins and of profitability, do you think it is feasible for your assets to exist in parts as opposed to the current situation where you have five countries and they are all controlled from one place, from one headquarters? Do you think it would make sense from the viewpoint of margins and profitability if it was, for example, two companies split geographically so that these two parts could be sold to potential buyers who are local and who are not willing to, for example, buy the whole company?

Mark Kobal -- Head of Investor Relations

OK. Thanks, Pavel. We'll start with the sector taxes with Christoph.

Christoph Mainusch -- Co-Chief Executive Officer

Indeed when we talked last time at the very beginning of the year and beginning of February, I think, and due to the low advertising month in January and February, we could see the impact of the sector taxes as that was at the time announced, but not yet clear how it would turn out. In March, then we really saw the behavior in advertising, lower advertising spend of these related industries like bank, finance, telecoms, energy. Well, energy doesn't have any impact on us. The second thing, in the first quarter, you saw two parallel events actually in that respect, which influenced the advertising spent in Romania.

The one is the sector tax and the other was Easter as Easter last year was actually at the beginning of April in Romania. And this year, it was end of April. So that has led to a phasing. But coming back to the sector taxes that created a bit of uncertainty in the market due to the imposed taxes.

And this resulted in less spending by those advertisers directly impacted by these new taxes in 2019. 2019 especially as it felt advertisers waited of what kind of how it would turn out. So in the first quarter, the spending of these clients in the sector taxes was roughly half of the level seen in the period of 2018. And we saw now as well in Romania that the telcos have started to increase their pricing.

So when you look into the sector tax development in Romania by eliminating the phasing of Easter, I think it makes sense that we look into April and then April to date. So April, the market was, to our estimate, up by 15%, and yes, we have said previously by more than 20%. And when you looked into that now, April to date, the market is still down by 4% and up as well by 4%. That is, in our opinion, majority owed to the situation of the sector taxes.

But these may be also an ongoing impact on the level of demand from advertisers in the sectors affected by the new taxes in the course of the year. But based on the level of the spending commitments we have received for 2019, we believe that this would be largely offset by additional spending from other clients. What has been shown already in April to date that you could see higher spending from sectors like food and beverage, pharmaceuticals, retailers and automotive.

Mark Kobal -- Head of Investor Relations

Thank you. And on strategic review, Michael?

Michael Del Nin -- Co-Chief Executive Officer

Yes. Thanks, Pavel. As you know, last month, we announced that the board of directors of CME commenced a process to explore and evaluate various strategic alternatives. Those included, as you point out, sale of all or part of the company but also merger with another strategic partner, recapitalization of the business or simply continuing to execute on the long term plan as we have been doing.

And you're correct, we said, at that time, that there would not be regular updates on this. I think, frankly, running commentary on this sort of process is not particularly helpful or necessarily clarifying to investors. But to your point, specifically, on whether we would entertain some of those individual sales and the impact that, that would have on margins. Look, what is driving this and what will ultimately, I think, drive the decision of the board of directors as to which direction we go here is simply what maximizes shareholder value for all of our shareholders.

And so I understand, obviously, where you're coming at that there is a certain amount, for example, of corporate costs that are associated with the group and obviously, supported by 5 countries at the moment. That is obviously something that we will take into account when contemplating such things as individual countries' sales. But generally speaking, we are absolutely looking at everything. And what will ultimately drive that decision, as I said, is what creates the most value for shareholders in the end.

Mark Kobal -- Head of Investor Relations

OK. Thank you. Before we take our next question, Natalie, could you just remind people how to put themselves in the queue?

Operator

[Operator instructions]

Mark Kobal -- Head of Investor Relations

The next question is coming from Piotr Raciborski from Wood & Company.

Piotr Raciborski -- Wood and Company -- Analyst

Congratulations on the good results for the first quarter, firstly. I have two questions. The first question, consider your customer mix in Czech Republic, actually I'd like to know what share of your TV ad revenues in Czech Republic is generated by the telecoms and banks. I'm asking the question because I have seen some rumors on the potential sector taxes implementation in Czech Republic as well.

So that's my first question. Second question considers the profitability improvements. Could you please elaborate on that? Because you've mentioned in most of the segments that the content costs have drops year on year in the first quarter. Is this because of the shift toward the local content production or is it also because of the timing of the Easter that you would rather spend more on content in second quarter than in first quarter? What should we expect in terms of content costs, expenditure in the next quarters of 2019?

Mark Kobal -- Head of Investor Relations

OK. We'll start with Christoph on Czech Republic.

Christoph Mainusch -- Co-Chief Executive Officer

Let me start with the second question first, on the cost. The content cost drive amount for the lower content cost year on year was mainly driven by the two countries, Bulgaria and Romania. And Romania for lower fiction cost and in Bulgaria for lower local fiction, which in the last end of quarter had an excess prime time and local telenovela running, which we didn't do this year. And the lower spot, for instance, at Champions League tournament, we had half of the game compared to last year as we are sharing this ticket with one of the providers.

So that means that, overall, as you know, we are always speaking for very strict cost control but there's low demand driver. And then you look into that overall, over the year, we expect, and given as well what Michael has initially said due to the rest of our guidance, we expect overall a bit lower content cost over the year plus speed up to that extent as what we have seen in Q1. But content cost over the year will be as well lower than last year on a full-year base, which drives actually then as well the profitability, including the growth of our advertising. To the customer mix in the Czech Republic.

There was a discussion in the Czech Republic on the sector taxes. We believe that, as it has been opened by one of the political parties for a long time, that there will be -- it's too early to say whether that might occur or not. And without any specific proposals that have a wider political support, it's difficult for us to comment on that. So therefore, we saw this negative impact in Romania while sector taxes were implemented in the first quarter but we do not know whether there would be a similar reaction in the Czech Republic.

And as we don't report on the mix of the certain advertising group, what you can see is, in the Czech Republic, you saw already in the first quarter an increase in the finance sector and retail and you saw a small decrease in pharmaceutical and telecoms. So that is actually the mix. Finance is up, telecoms were a bit down, but overall, April to date, we see in the Czech Republic a plus 8%. So it's too early to say, to comment on more in addition to that.

Mark Kobal -- Head of Investor Relations

OK. Our next question is coming from Martin Cakl from Patria.

Martin Cakl -- Patria -- Analyst

So as the others, congratulations. So now we've got the updated guidance as far as EBITDA goes and free cash flow. Are you planning to release updated debt guidance any time soon? And is it perhaps related to the strategic decision you have to make later on?

Michael Del Nin -- Co-Chief Executive Officer

Martin, when you say updated debt guidance, I assume that you're talking about kind of what our leverage target will be.

Martin Cakl -- Patria -- Analyst

Yes. Exactly. Like, what's your target long term, maybe? If you fail to reduce the leverage below even what you said by covenants of the 2.754.

Michael Del Nin -- Co-Chief Executive Officer

Yes. Yes. I think to answer that, I think, is kind of two points. One, I think is to, obviously, point out the progress that we've made.

Just in the last quarter, as we said, in addition to paying down EUR 60 million debt, our net leverage ratio has fallen by half a turn in just three months. It's a couple of turns lower compared to where we were this time last year. That's obviously, phenomenal progress on the leveraging front. And this is a discussion that, obviously, we've been having with investors for a while as to what the leverage target will be going forward and what we plan to do in terms of capital allocation.

As we've discussed and as you know, we did announce a process to review strategic alternatives, and a capital allocation strategy and a leverage target, considerations in a number of those alternatives that are under review. But I think that what we need to do is let that process play out. And depending on where it goes, obviously, clarity on both the target leverage and what we will do with excess capital will be something that would make sense on the other side of that review.

Mark Kobal -- Head of Investor Relations

OK. Thank you, everyone, for joining us today. As a quick reminder, you can keep up to date and follow our progress between earnings calls on our website cme.net since we routinely post important information about the company and its operations. We're also available for your feedback and questions any time.

Operator

[Operator signoff]

Duration: 32 minutes

Call Participants:

Mark Kobal -- Head of Investor Relations

Michael Del Nin -- Co-Chief Executive Officer

Christoph Mainusch -- Co-Chief Executive Officer

Dave Sturgeon -- Chief Financial Officer

Pavel Ryska -- J and T Bank -- Analyst

Piotr Raciborski -- Wood and Company -- Analyst

Martin Cakl -- Patria -- Analyst

More CETV analysis

This article is a transcript of this conference call produced for The Motley Fool. While we strive for our Foolish Best, there may be errors, omissions, or inaccuracies in this transcript. As with all our articles, The Motley Fool does not assume any responsibility for your use of this content, and we strongly encourage you to do your own research, including listening to the call yourself and reading the company's SEC filings. Please see our Terms and Conditions for additional details, including our Obligatory Capitalized Disclaimers of Liability.

10 stocks we like better than Central European Media Enterprises
When investing geniuses David and Tom Gardner have a stock tip, it can pay to listen. After all, the newsletter they have run for over a decade, Motley Fool Stock Advisor, has quadrupled the market.*

David and Tom just revealed what they believe are the ten best stocks for investors to buy right now... and Central European Media Enterprises wasn't one of them! That's right -- they think these 10 stocks are even better buys.

See the 10 stocks

*Stock Advisor returns as of March 1, 2019