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Warner Bros Discovery says strike effect, lousy ad market to bleed into 2024

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LA Post: Warner Bros Discovery says strike effect, lousy ad market to bleed into 2024
Reuters
Helen Coster and Samrhitha A
November 08, 2023

By Helen Coster and Samrhitha A

(Reuters) - Box office smash "Barbie" helped Warner Bros Discovery top core quarterly profit estimates but the effects of two Hollywood strikes and a weak advertising market could hamper earnings into next year, company executives said on Wednesday.

The dour outlook sent the company's shares tumbling 19%, their worst one-day performance since March 2021.

Although Hollywood's film and television writers ratified a new three-year contract in September, ending their 148-day work stoppage, members of the SAG-AFTRA actors union have been on strike since July, roiling the industry's 2024 film slate and depriving media companies of new content to sell.

Chief Financial Officer Gunnar Wiedenfels said on a call with investors that there was a risk the financial hit from the strike would linger into 2024.

"It is becoming increasingly clear now that much like 2023, 2024 will have its share of complexity, particularly as it relates to the possibility of continued sluggish advertising trends," Wiedenfels said. "We don't see when this is going to turn."

Chief Executive David Zaslav said the company saw its lightest original content slate in years and had to delay some releases, leading to a drop in third-quarter streaming subscriber numbers.

Wiedenfels said that for full-year 2023 there will likely be "a few hundred million dollars" of a negative impact on EBITDA due to strike impacts, and "several hundred million dollars" of positive cash flow as a result of not being able to spend on production.

"The extreme success of the Barbie movie may be a one-off for them that won't be repeated for at least a few years," said Michael Schulman, chief investment officer at Running Point Capital.

The media company, forged by the union of WarnerMedia and Discovery, posted third-quarter adjusted core earnings of $2.97 billion, above estimates of $2.92 billion, according to LSEG data. Overall revenue of $9.98 billion was in line with estimates.

The company reported free cash flow of $2.06 billion, compared with $1.72 billion in the prior quarter. This surpassed expectations for $1.74 billion, according to Visible Alpha.

The company posted a net loss of $417 million, narrowing from a $2.3 billion net loss from a year-ago period.

"The market is not thrilled with the fact that even with the unparalleled blockbuster success of Barbie, they still found a way to lose $417 million in the quarter. Not ideal," Great Hill Capital Chairman Thomas Hayes said.

Advertising revenue at its networks segment declined 12% to $1.71 billion as global conflicts and inflation created an uncertain climate for marketers.

The company's streaming unit posted an adjusted core profit of $111 million, compared with a loss of $634 million a year ago. Global average revenue per user in the segment rose 6%.

Warner Bros Discovery had 95.1 million global direct-to-consumer customers at the end of the quarter, down from 95.8 million in the previous quarter. In May, it launched its Max streaming service, combining HBO Max's scripted entertainment with Discovery's reality shows.

The company lost 17 cents per share, larger than estimates for a loss of 6 cents.

(Reporting by Samrhitha Arunasalam in Bengaluru and Helen Coster in New York; Editing by Saumyadeb Chakrabarty, Anil D'Silva and Mark Porter)

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