Even Scripps Networks’ Upscale Audience Can’t Boost Ailing Stock

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Scripps' Networks Interactive's (SNI) most popular channels HGTV, DIY, Food Network were veritable cash cows for years, raking in advertising dollars on consistent ratings. But those days are over

Scripps's stock is backpedaling, down nearly 11% for the year to date and 1% Monday as television ad revenue declines, leaving investors little reason to own the shares apart from long-running speculation that the company is a takeover target.

Even Scripps' potential for a takeover is waning as the company has been increasing its size with acquisitions like the roughly $656.3 takeover of Poland's TVN, making the Cincinnati-based company a more expensive buy.

"The company's acquisition of a controlling interest in Polish TV operator TVN, could be a negative for the stock," said CLSA Research analyst Vasily Karasyov in a note. The firm has an underperform rating on SNI. "Investors often speculate on Scripps' potential as an acquisition target, and this is reflected in its valuation. If the Street believes the company is no longer a potential target, its valuation multiple could compress."

Last week Scripps reported mixed first-quarter results including revenue of about $658.3 million versus the Street view of $660.9 million, according to Thomson Reuters. First-quarter net income was $123.8 million, down from $128.3 million a year prior with adjusted earnings of $1.02 per share, higher than the Street consensus of 91 cents. SNI retreated about 3% in response.

Like many media companies, Scripps is grappling with a rapidly softening television ad market as its viewerships are collapsing with more consumers turning to digital outlets like Netflix (NFLX) or YouTube. Television ad bookings declined about 6% in the first quarter, although bookings picked up in March, according to the latest data from Standard Media Index. Meanwhile, the overall digital ad market grew 23% during that same time.

Scripps did welcome significant audience growth for several of its networks, including HGTV, now with 22 million viewers, which drew double-digit audience growth, reaching the highest rating of adults aged 24 to 55 in its history.

With hits like Ellen's Design Challenge, Fixer Upper and Property Brothers, "HGTV has succeeded by concentrating on just a few familiar lifestyle themes like 'fantasy destinations,'" according to Scripps CEO, Chairman and President Kenneth Lowe, citing DIY Network, Cooking Channel and Great American Country as also continuing to attract larger and more upscale audiences.

However, other Scripps networks such as Food Network and Travel Channel have struggled to grow viewership. To drum up ratings, Scripps said it's trying to rally more audience here with a new slate of programming this spring and summer, with new shows like 12 Angry Yelpers, which pits restaurant owners against their negative online reviewers to try to "re-establish culinary credibility," Lowe said in the company's Thursday earnings call.

"This is an incredibly fast-paced industry that's always changing. Rapid change favors the strongest brands and our networks are uniquely positioned to take advantage with a more upscale and highly engaged audience," Lowe said.

But while Scripps is beefing up content, it's not beefing up sorely needed advertising revenue, which accounts for about 75% of its revenue, Bernstein analyst Todd Juenger noted. Advertising revenue was completely flat this quarter.

"Scripps beat EPS but slightly missed where it counts more: advertising," Juenger said in a note. Bernstein has a market-perform rating on SNI with a $78 price target. "The tension on the stock remains the same. Scripps' advertising stability is better than most, but not the grower it used to be."

Scripps did not update full-year 2015 guidance but said it expects total revenue growth to be in the low single digits.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.

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