Time Warner profit beats Street, eyes AOL spin-off

NEW YORK Wed Apr 29, 2009 8:08pm EDT

People walk in front of the Time Warner Inc. headquarters building at Columbus Circle in New York October 13, 2005. REUTERS/Nicholas Roberts

People walk in front of the Time Warner Inc. headquarters building at Columbus Circle in New York October 13, 2005.

Credit: Reuters/Nicholas Roberts

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Time Warner Inc posted a stronger-than-expected quarterly profit, as a rise in cable network revenue helped offset declines in advertising sales at its AOL Internet and Time Inc publishing units.

Shares of the company, the first of the big U.S. media conglomerates to post results, gained 3 percent on Wednesday, after it also affirmed its 2009 outlook and said it anticipates spinning off one or more parts of AOL.

Other media stocks, including Walt Disney Co and Viacom Inc, also rose, with investor sentiment helped by government data that showed U.S. consumer spending increased in the first quarter [nN29423406].

Chief Executive Jeffrey Bewkes is trying to turn Time Warner back into a traditional media company consisting of cable networks like HBO, CNN and TNT, the Warner Bros film studio, and publishing units.

Bewkes said on a conference call that Time Warner will announce its plans for AOL's restructuring "very soon."

Wall Street sees the long-expected spin-off of AOL as a positive move strategically and financially.

"The best solution, in our opinion, is to spin off AOL in a tax-free transaction, which should remove some of the negative overhang caused by AOL on Time Warner's stock price," said Martin Pyykkonen, analyst at Wunderlich Securities.

Time Warner said it also notified Google Inc of its intention to buy back its 5 percent stake in AOL. Chief Financial Officer John Martin said the process could take a few months.

Bewkes completed the first major leg of his strategy to focus on content with the separation of its former cable unit, Time Warner Cable Inc on March 12. The cable company also posted quarterly results on Wednesday [nN29382705].

BETTER PROFITS THAN EXPECTED

Time Warner's income from continuing operations was roughly flat at $555 million, or 46 cents a share, in the first quarter, compared with $548 million, or 46 cents per share, a year earlier.

EPS excluding items was 45 cents, down from 48 cents a year ago but higher than the average analyst forecast of 39 cents, according to Reuters Estimates.

"The results were pretty good overall," said Thomas Eagan, analyst at Collins Stewart. "The revenue was better than we expected."

First-quarter revenue fell 7 percent to $6.9 billion, but it was higher than the average analyst forecast of $6.75 billion, according to Reuters Estimates.

CFO John Martin said the current quarter will be the "most challenging from a growth perspective," as the company is hurt by continuing weak ad revenue and poor home video sales.

Revenue at AOL fell 23 percent to $867 million, while revenue at Time Inc fell 23 percent to $806 million. Warner Bros revenue fell 7 percent to $2.6 billion, primarily due to lower DVD sales.

Revenue at the cable networks unit rose 6 percent to $2.8 billion, thanks to a 9 percent rise in subscription revenues which offset a 2 percent decline in advertising revenues.

"I felt that publishing was way worse than I expected but it was offset by networks, which was in line with our expectations," said Tuna Amobi, equity analyst at Standard & Poor's. "It's hard to see how the new content group can jump-start growth going forward." The company's earnings are more volatile without cable's steady cash flows, he added.

Time Warner affirmed its full-year 2009 outlook, saying its adjusted earnings per share would be flat with 2008 at aroun 1.98.

Shares of Time Warner rose 61 cents or 2.8 percent to $22.38 on the New York Stock Exchange. Disney rose $1.45 or 7.4 percent to $20.96 while Viacom rose $1.28 or 6.27 percent to $20.26.

(Reporting by Yinka Adegoke; Editing by Gerald E. McCormick and Tiffany Wu)

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