Covid-19 Evaporates First Quarter TV Ad Revenue—And the Worst Is Yet to Come

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Key insight:

To borrow a phrase from ViacomCBS CEO Bob Bakish during Thursday’s earnings call, advertising sales during the Covid-19 pandemic are “not pretty.” And media companies’ bottom lines are expected to get even uglier next quarter when the full effects of the crisis will be felt on their earnings.

From a $400 million hit at WarnerMedia to an expected 50% decline in local ad revenues at Fox Corp., the ongoing pandemic has had major negative effects on ad sales at nearly every major media company, according to the most recent round of quarterly earnings reports. But most execs warn that the worst is likely yet to come. Even those companies that reported strong revenue quarters buoyed from advertising bonanzas earlier in the year are warning of an even rockier advertising market going forward.

“Obviously this whole Covid-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on our ad sales. I think that’s fair to say for anyone in the advertising business on one side or another,” Disney chief financial officer Christine McCarthy told investors on Tuesday.

At Disney, the biggest bruises came from the closure of theme parks, cruise and retail footprints, which translated to about $1 billion in lost profit. But on the advertising side, it also meant a loss of ad revenues, particularly at sports network ESPN, where ad revenues were down 8% with no relief in sight, as live sports remain sidelined. All in all, the company reported $1.4 billion in lost profits in Q1 due to Covid-19.

“For us, it’s really due to the lack of live sporting events and pullback from advertisers in categories that are most impacted,” including travel, movie studios, restaurants, retail and domestic auto, McCarthy said of the ad sales declines.

The story was similar at AT&T, which saw advertising revenues fall 12.9%. Covid-19 had an estimated $900 million effect on revenues at WarnerMedia, “mostly due to lower advertising from the cancellation of March Madness,” the first sign of a bleak ad sales picture for media companies, outgoing AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said on a call with investors two weeks ago. The losses were most pronounced on the WarnerMedia’s Turner division, which saw a 24.1% year-over-year quarterly decline in advertising revenue.

The company’s explanation was simple: “There is no sports content, one of the best yielding pieces of inventory that we have access to,” said incoming CEO John Stankey. “Secondly, economic activity is down. We have complete segments that have come out of the advertising space.”

As advertising from film studios, restaurants, travel, tourism, retail and domestic auto dry up, it’s meant that while networks are seeing ratings surge from captive at-home audiences, they aren’t able to fully monetize them.

“Despite viewership gains for our local news programming, fiscal fourth quarter advertising revenues are pacing down around 50% from year-ago levels,” Fox Corp CEO Lachlan Murdoch told investors Wednesday, pointing to local auto, retail, travel and entertainment categories leading the decline. It also means the scatter market is “not as robust” as its been, Stankey told investors.

The same could be said at ViacomCBS, which Thursday morning reported a 30% year-over-year decline in its television entertainment segment, a loss of $586 million, due to the loss of live sports and some advertiser departures, plus a depressed April scatter market.

“I can tell you it’s not as bad as what Fox is saying, that’s for sure, but it’s not pretty either,” Bakish said, declining to offer up specific domestic ad sales loss estimates for the second quarter.

Discovery, which is insulated from live sporting events in the U.S. and has seen renewed demand for home improvement and cooking programming, saw the effects, too: its international ad revenue saw a nearly 10% decline in March and about a 40% decline in April, Discovery CEO David Zaslav told investors.

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