Time Warner (NYSE:TWX) released its second-quarter earnings report on August 5 before the market opened. It delivered strong results that were better than anticipated, coming amid industrywide fears about the rise of cord-cutting and the decline of cable.
While shares dipped roughly 9% on the day of the earnings release, the company actually delivered a nice earnings surprise. The average analyst estimate -- compiled by Thomson Reuters -- called for revenue of $6.9 billion, while Time Warner actually brought in $7.35 billion. Earnings per share were also significantly better than expected, with the average analyst estimate calling for EPS of $1.03 and actual adjusted EPS for the quarter coming in at $1.25 on net income of $971 million.
Following the earnings release, key Time Warner officials took part in a conference call to provide some color on the quarter's performance and provide some insight on the future of the business. Here are five key takeaways from the call.
The Turner segment is delivering ratings and content wins
Time Warner's second-quarter results were released shortly before the market reacted to Disney's cautious outlook on the future of cable by sending shares down across the media industry. But results for Warner's Turner segment were solid, with the company reporting progress on several crucial fronts.
The company's TNT and TBS channels were the top prime-time performers among ad-supported cable networks in the 18-to-49 demographic. Cartoon Network and Adult Swim were also strong performers and led total day views in the 18-to-34 demographic for the 29th straight quarter. Here's CEO Jeff Bewkes on the Turner performance:
Over time, we are confident that refreshing our brands and our content at TBS and TNT will result in the same kind of renaissance we are seeing at Cartoon Network and CNN. Cartoon Network grew total day ratings among kids 6 to 11 by double digits, and it was the only major kids network to grow in the quarter, overtaking Nickelodeon as the number two network in that demo for the first time in its history. At CNN, primetime viewership in its key 25-to-54 demo grew 25% in the quarter and it continued to age down, while our competitors aged up. CNN.com is also building on its lead in digital. In June, CNN.com streamed 212 million videos. That's a record for the site, and it made it the news leader in digital video for the second straight month, ahead of Buzzfeed and Yahoo! News.
Warner has a strong position in gaming and anticipates growth
The Warner Bros. segment drove growth and outperformance in the quarter, with strong sales for the company's video game releases spurring much of the positive momentum. Here's Bewkes on the strong performance of Mortal Kombat X and Batman: Arkham Knight and the future of the company's gaming ventures:
We all know Warner is the gold standard in television and film production, but its growing video game business is also an industry leader. For the first half of the year Warner ranked as the top video game publisher in North America and had the two biggest releases in Batman: Arkham Knight and Mortal Kombat X. We are looking to build on that momentum with next month's release of Lego Dimensions, our entry into the toys-to-life category. What you are seeing across Warner, which is also happening throughout our company, is how the best IP can be monetized across many different platforms both inside and beyond traditional ecosystems.
With a slate of big-budget movies based on DC Comics characters set to release over the next decade, Warner has the opportunity to convert interest in its film characters into video game sales.
Up to this point, the company's use of DC superheroes has been mostly limited to the titular protagonist of its Batman series. However, games featuring Superman, Wonder Woman, and The Flash could be big future sales drivers. In addition to games based on DC characters, the company's Mortal Kombat and Lego series are also in good shape, so Warner appears poised to continue expanding its games business.
HBO NOW is off to a strong start and should drive performance in the future
Time Warner's second quarter saw the company launch its HBO NOW over-the-top streaming service, and Bewkes and other officials were enthusiastic about the platform's debut. Technology and marketing investments in the platform weighed on earnings for the quarter, with operating income in the Home Box Office segment dipping 8% year over year, but the company anticipates that HBO NOW has the potential to reach a wide audience and turn into a performance driver. Here's CFO Howard Averill on the platform's second-quarter performance and growth opportunities going forward:
Similarly, we anticipate that HBO NOW will be a more material contributor to subscription revenue growth over time. We are pleased with the initial consumer response to the service, but we saw only a modest benefit to the sub revenue in the second quarter due to the 30-day free trial period for new subscribers. Looking ahead to the third quarter, we expect to benefit from a full quarter of paying subs on HBO NOW.
Averill went on to say that the company anticipates that HBO NOW will generate losses for the rest of the year but that early results for the platform suggest that it will eventually become very profitable.
Time Warner is looking to data analytics to improve advertising efficiency
In addition to improving content, Time Warner management also focused on ongoing efforts to improve advertising efficiency and the role that data analytics and innovations in television ad distribution can play to that end. Bewkes touted the company's Turner Data Cloud as a means of improving marketers' ability to reach optimal audiences across both cable and digital platforms.
While overall ad revenue fell slightly in the second quarter, domestic ad sales increased, and Turner segment operating income increased roughly 22%. Bewkes pointed to improvements in advertising as central to Turner's ability to deliver pricing increases that outperformed the industry. Here's Turner CEO John Martin describing the company's vision for the future of advertising:
We have a lot to learn as we move forward. We are working with some of our biggest partners, and we're roughly using 20% of our inventory for targeting, but that's going to dramatically ramp in the future. We are investing in technology. We are investing in data. We've come a long way over the last year. And I think a lot of the capabilities that so-called digital companies have had an advantage of over TV are going to be eliminated as TV can not only provide targeting and increased reach and relevance, but also in a very, very immersive experience with long-form video that is professionally produced. So I think we're in the very, very early stages of seeing TV make a dramatic comeback on the attractiveness of advertising.
The debt level is manageable
Time Warner's net debt increased by roughly $800 million since the start of the fiscal year, with the company indicating that the increase was tied to distributing cash to shareholders. With dividend payouts and share repurchases, the company has returned $2.4 billion to shareholders through the first half of the year.
Meanwhile, free cash flow over that time period came out to roughly $1.8 billion. The company anticipates that it will continue producing healthy cash flow for the remainder of the year despite ongoing restructuring expenses. The company's net debt as of June 30 stood at $20.7 billion. Here's Averill on the company's debt situation:
Our net leverage ratio at the end of the quarter was approximately 3 times. However, excluding programming, restructuring, and severance charges from the second half of 2014, our leverage ratio would have been 2.64 times, slightly below our target leverage of 2.75 times. We continue to believe that leverage target provides us the flexibility to invest in our businesses, engage in strategic M&A, and provide direct returns to shareholders, while at the same time optimizing our cost of capital and providing strong access to the capital markets in a variety of macroeconomic scenarios.
Turning to the annual earnings outlook, Averill reaffirmed the company's target of between $4.60 and $4.70 in adjusted EPS, suggesting growth between 11% and 13% over the prior year's EPS of $4.15.
Keith Noonan has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Walt Disney and Yahoo. The Motley Fool owns shares of Walt Disney and Yahoo. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.