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World Series Ratings, Cable Ad Sales Lift 21st Century Fox Earnings

Variety logo Variety 2/6/2017 Brent Lang
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UPDATED: A vicious presidential race and a historic World Series victory for the Chicago Cubs was good news for 21st Century Fox. The media conglomerate saw revenues climb 4% to $7.68 billion during its most recent quarterly earnings, on higher ad sales stemming from the White House battle and interests around post-season baseball.

Profits for the three months ending in December were 53 cents a share, up from 44 cents in the year-ago period. Net income attributable to shareholders topped out at $857 million, a big 27% jump from the $674 million that Fox reported in the corresponding period. Despite the gains, investor reaction to the results was mixed. Shares of Fox fell in after-hours trading, before regaining their footing.

Profits were better than anticipated, but revenues narrowly missed analysts’ expectations. Wall Street projected that Fox would earn 49 cents a share on $7.72 billion in revenue.

The flood of election year commercials and higher ratings for live sports helped offset a series of missteps in the company’s film business. The studio fielded flops such as “Assassin’s Creed” and “Rules Don’t Apply,” along with the modestly successful James Franco comedy “Why Him?” Revenues for the filmed entertainment division decreased $92 million to $2.27 billion on the weaker slate.

“Our record-breaking post-season baseball run underscores the immense value of our sports programming, as well as the broader competitive advantage we have built through our other leadership positions in entertainment and news,” Executive Chairmen Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch said in a joint statement.

Live sports dominated a call with analysts on Monday. The company’s latest financial results were disclosed hours after the New England Patriots won the Super Bowl in a stunning comeback. Fox said it expected that broadcasting the game would lead to $500 million in advertising and sponsorship revenue, though that will be logged in future quarters.

21st Century Fox CEO James Murdoch spent the bulk of the earnings call discussing the media company’s digital future. He said that Fox was moving closer to profiling “unfettered access” to its programming online and on various devices. As part of that push, Murdoch said that Fox planned to overhaul its apps. He also hailed Hulu’s move into live-streaming, a new service that Fox will use for its programming. Murdoch acknowledged that there have been issues with streaming services (the Fox Sports Go app had technical problems during the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl), but suggested that these hiccups will be dealt with.

“We have a high degree of confidence in the Hulu platform,” Murdoch said. “It’s not an easy technical challenge, but it’s one that’s surmountable.”

Fox’s latest earnings period was a busy one, closing with the company striking a $14.6 billion deal to buy European pay-TV giant Sky. The company previously owned a stake in Sky and has long had ambitions to buy it outright.

Fox News and the other cable networks got a boost from the presidential election, both in terms of viewership and commercial sales. The news network also finds itself on the right side of the ideological divide. The right-leaning network has been singled out for praise by President Donald Trump, who has feuded with its cable rival, CNN. However, the news channel also lost Megyn Kelly, one of its most popular anchors, to NBC News, which was seen as a blow to its lineup. Her program is now hosted by Tucker Carlson.

Operating income at Fox’s cable networks business jumped to $1.22 billion — a 6% bump — while revenues climbed 7% to $3.97 billion, up 7%. Fox television arm’s saw operating income rise 35% to $376 million, while revenues increased 12% to $1.92 billion.

Fox’s film arm recently underwent a major shakeup. Stacey Snider was elevated to CEO of the studio, a title she shared with Jim Gianopulos. Her promotion came with his ouster, with Gianopulos leaving the studio after more than a decade in the top job.

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