With split-up talk in the air this spring, Wall Street is ready to hear from the media industry's stay-the-course crowd.
Quarterly updates are due Wednesday from two unabashed defenders of the bigger-is-better school of investing.
, which has pegged hopes on its cable systems, will report its first quarter first thing Wednesday.
, which is betting heavily on satellite broadcasting, will post numbers after the close.
The reports come at a pivotal time in the communications business. Media stocks have lagged far behind a flat-to-down broader market in recent years, prompting two industry leaders --
-- to move this spring toward spinoffs of underperforming units that never meshed well with their parents.
There's no indication that either Time Warner, led by CEO Dick Parsons, or News Corp., run by media magnate Rupert Murdoch, plans to move in that direction. In fact, both companies have recently rolled out big acquisitions of their own, Time Warner joining with
to swallow cable operator
and News Corp. buying in the public interest in its Fox unit.
Even so, big media operators everywhere are struggling to cope with consumer adoption of new technologies, from the Internet and satellite TV to phone over cable. How Time Warner and News Corp. handle those challenges will go a long way toward determining how their investors fare in coming months.
On Tuesday, Time Warner slipped 13 cents to $16.77, while News Corp. was flat at $15.44.
Both companies have their share of iconic properties. At New York-based Time Warner, start with the Warner Brothers studios, the WB television network and properties like HBO and New Line -- all high-profile cash cows. News Corp. boasts 20th Century Fox and minority-owned affiliate
, which reported strong earnings Monday.
That said, much interest will lie elsewhere. Time Warner followers will be keeping an eye on progress at the AOL unit, where stemming subscriber erosion has been a major undertaking in recent years. By the same token, News Corp.'s publishing division will face increased scrutiny as well.
Analysts polled by Thomson First Call expect Time Warner to make 17 cents a share on revenue of $10.3 billion, up modestly on the year-ago 15 cents and $10.1 billion. Meanwhile, analysts expect News Corp. to earn 17 cents on revenue of $5.87 billion.
Even if Parsons and Murdoch are less apt to talk about realigning management and shareholder incentives than their peers at Viacom and Clear Channel, the media disassembly theme is alive and well in cable. Indeed, Time Warner has signaled that it would like to do an IPO of its cable unit once it completes the Adelphia deal.
In the meantime, Time Warner, a holding in
, will pin its hopes on services like video on demand and telephone. A key indicator will be whether basic cable subscriber numbers are healthy. Comcast, the country's largest cable provider, shed 29,000 basic users last quarter, though digital cable subscription increased by 200,000 to now reach over 40% of its total base.
The ongoing state of AOL is also at issue. The company, having shed millions of dial-up subscribers over the past couple of years, seems to have turned things around, thanks to free platforms and an increase in online advertising. But at HBO, new subscriber rates keep rising, thanks to a seemingly endless pipeline of superior programming. Even as
nears the end of its run,
has become the next HBO craze. Warner continues to prosper, with several high-profile movies in the works for summer and fall. The younger-skewing WB network has not fared as well this season, though, losing considerable ground in the teen demo wars to rivals UPN and Fox. Turner and CNN are doing well, with CNN seeing recent ratings gains on rival Fox News.
All told, it seems Time Warner is in a better place than it was a year ago this time.
At News Corp., satellite is helping to offset the continued decline of newspapers. But it seems clear that more needs to be done to shore up the publishing unit.
At a speech last month to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Murdoch cited Internet portals like
MSN as the places people are getting news and information from now.
"The challenge for us is to create an Internet presence that is compelling enough for users to make us their home page," he said. "Just as people traditionally started their day with coffee and the newspaper, in the future, our hope should be that for those who start their day online, it will be with coffee and our Web site.
"To do this, though," he said, "we have to refashion our Web presence."