Time Warner Jumps as Turner Networks Prove to Be Must-Have TV

Time Warner (TWX) posted earnings that beat analysts' expectations for the 29th consecutive quarter as revenue was bolstered by its coverage of the NCAA basketball tournament and a new slate of programming at its Turner Broadcasting networks.

Higher fees from pay-TV operators for Turner networks like TBS and TNT fueled a first-quarter profit excluding some items of $1.49 a share, easily exceeding an average analyst forecast of $1.30 as compiled by Bloomberg.

Shares of New York-based Time Warner were rising 2.6% to $75.69 as adjusted operating profit increased a 11% in the quarter to a record $2 billion. Even as Time Warner's stock fell to a two-year low in February, the shares have still gained 19% this year.

First-quarter net income was $1.2 billion, up from $970 million a year earlier; analysts had forecast profit of $1.05 billion. Sales increased 3% to $7.3 billion, trailing analysts' estimates of $7.5 billion. 

Time Warner's results are sure to ease pressure on CEO Jeff Bewkes to sell the company or spin off HBO, its premium channel. Time Warner is betting that its ability to create original shows for cable-TV and standalone video services combined with acquiring must-see sports programming will give it considerable leverage when negotiating affiliate fees with pay-TV operators.

And in the first-quarter, that formula proved to be working.

Affiliate fees leaped 11% at Turner in the quarter in part because of its coverage of the men's NCAA basketball tournament in March and early April. The finals on April 4 was shown on a cable-TV network, TBS, for the first time. Other games were broadcast on CBS (CBS) , TNT and truTV.

Turner is also beginning to get attention for its dramatic programming as ratings for the networks were bolstered by new comedies Angie Tribeca, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee and The Detour, which the company said was the highest-rated new comedy on cable-TV so far this year. Turner's results were also helped by higher ratings and advertising sales at CNN, which has capitalized on heightened attention on the U.S. presidential campaign.

Overall, Turner sales increased to $2.9 billion from $2.7 billion during the same period.

Results at HBO were more mixed. While sales at HBO, led by shows such as Game of Thrones, jumped 8% to $1.5 billion, operating income rose 4.1% due to higher programming costs and slower subscription growth as a result of the Charter Communications (CHTR) merger with Time Warner Cable (TWC) as well as Altice's acquisition of Cablevision (CVC) .

Warner got good results from its film division, Warner Bros, as adjusted operating income jumped 30% to $426 million during the quarter due in part to the release of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Revenue at Warner Bros, however, slipped 2.8% compared to the first quarter of 2015 which included results from the release of the hit film American Sniper and carry-over from the final installment of The Hobbit, The Battle of the Five Armies.

Earnings from continuing operations reached $1.2 billion compared to $933 million in the same period a year ago.

Time Warner shares have been on a rebound since hitting a two-year low in February after its Turner cable-network division lost subscribers in the fourth quarter, an ominous sign for investors worried about the future strength of the traditional pay-TV bundle. Before Wednesday, shares had jumped 23% since Feb. 10.

Since the beginning of the year, Time Warner spent $711 million on share buybacks, less than the forecast of $875 million from Wells Fargo media analyst Marci Ryvicker. The company also reaffirmed that its 2016 earnings per share is likely to fall within the range of $5.30 to $5.40 a share.

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