As big media stocks drift lower, Wall Street is waiting for a gust of inspiration to lift them back up.For now, the hope is that a healthier ad market and improving financials will soon propel these stocks back to positive territory. With the market recently suffering from valuation worries and terror-related jitters, analysts and investors don't expect to see a rally until Wall Street starts seeing happier headlines. But the approaching earnings season could be just the ticket, these people say. "Unless things get worse in the world, unless things get scarier," first-quarter earnings and the accompanying second-quarter outlook should dispel some of the gloom hanging over media stocks, says Schwab SoundView media analyst Jordan Rohan. It won't be easy, though. Even an advertising resurgence will likely be taken with a grain of salt, given how year-ago performance was depressed by the beginning of the war in Iraq, and given that two of the big drivers for advertising sales this year -- the Summer Olympics and the election season -- are unlikely to come as a surprise. "It's going to take good earnings results in the first quarter," adds a buy-side media analyst who is long radio and TV broadcasting stocks. "I don't think anything else could turn it around." That would be a nice shift for investors in these shares. After all, the big names -- from Viacom ( VIA.B) and Time Warner ( TWX) to News Corp. ( NWS) and Clear Channel ( CCU) -- have marched lower since their January and February highs. Meanwhile, Disney ( DIS), whose shares got a boost from Comcast's ( CMCSA) unwelcome tender offer in February, has fallen most of the way back to where it was trading before Comcast announced its intentions. Further muddling the picture: While a round of first-quarter numbers and a positive outlook on the second quarter could improve the view, individual companies have their own stumbling blocks that complicate matters.
Issues such as the Comcast bid for Disney, the Securities and Exchange Commission's ongoing investigation of Time Warner's America Online, and the threat of a further resurgence in terrorist activity, following the train bombing in Madrid, all appear to be dragging on stocks in some form or another. Rohan notes that an ad market recovery is most likely to benefit Viacom and possibly Fox ( FOX), News Corp.'s broadcast and entertainment subsidiary. Viacom, as he forecast in a Thursday note, will get the biggest payoff from the upfront market -- the process, which starts in May, in which TV advertising is sold for 2004-2005 season. Rohan has neutral ratings on Viacom and Fox. Most likely to turn things around for Time Warner, says Rohan, is any resolution of the SEC investigation into onetime revenue recognition practices at AOL. "It has almost created a bottleneck to full restructuring" at Time Warner, says Rohan. Once that investigation is out of the way, he says, Time Warner could "rationalize" its cable assets, part of which are owned by Comcast, and could, if it wants to, sell or spin off AOL. The company could be free to launch a bid for Adelphia Communications and expand its cable footprint, he says. Rohan has an outperform rating on Time Warner. The buyside media analyst, speaking on condition of anonymity, cited several reasons for Time Warner's decline: the continuing weakness in subscriber numbers at AOL, and the fact that in any cable industry consolidation, the perception that Time Warner would be a buyer, not a seller. Similar concerns about spending are affecting Comcast and Cox, says the buy-sider. He notes that Comcast is down further because of its overtures toward Disney, but Cox has been getting hit, too, even though its urge to make an acquisition is less tangible. "People are wondering who Comcast and Cox are going to spend free cash flow on," he says. As for Viacom and other broadcast-driven stocks, conditions would be improved by definitively good ad numbers for March, which seem to be positive, and strong numbers for April. Right now, he says, "People don't believe the optimistic estimates" for the year.