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* Corus profit plunges as television revenue slips
* Astral reports solid growth in TV, outdoor advertising
* Astral says BCE deal should close by June, end July latest
By Alastair Sharp
TORONTO, April 11 Two of Canada's biggest independent media companies handed in very different earnings report cards on Thursday, with profits at Corus Entertainment Inc plunging 81 percent while rival Astral Media Inc reported a 9 percent jump in earnings.
Shares of Corus plunged 5 percent, while shares of Astral were little changed.
Astral, which is waiting for regulators to rule on a revised proposal to be acquired by BCE Inc, Canada's biggest telecom provider and owner of the CTV television network, said growth at its main television operation and smaller outdoor advertising unit more than offset a slip in radio revenue.
Astral said it saw no reason for the good times to end as it expects to lure more TV subscribers with its recently launched video streaming services, which allow customers to watch movies on mobile devices such as Apple's iPad, something that should help bring in more advertisers and perhaps boost ad rates.
"When I look at bookings I'm optimistic...that we should be looking at mid-single-digit increases in advertising for the balance of the year," Ian Greenberg, chief executive of Astral, told analysts on a conference call.
By contrast, Corus said earnings, already hurt by poor television unit performance, were affected by a C$25 million pre-tax charge on a debt refinancing that should place the company on firmer financial footing.
Corus said TV revenue fell 12 percent, hurt by dismal performance in the children's segment, which along with women's programming makes up the bulk of its offering.
"A problem well defined is a problem half-solved. To define the specific problem it was kids, and more specifically the entertainment sector," Corus CEO John Cassaday said on a call.
The two companies compete to sell their television content to cable and satellite companies, and each owns radio stations.
Astral is the single largest provider of content to BCE, which has moved aggressively to secure ownership of news, sports, films and other content distributed via its television and Internet services.
Astral and BCE hope to close their deal by the start of June, but gave themselves rights to postpone it until the end of July.
Astral's net profit rose to C$38.3 million ($37.6 million), or 68 Canadian cents a share, from C$35.0 million, or 63 cents a share, a year earlier.
Excluding the Bell-Astral transaction and other costs, the Montreal-based company's earnings rose 8 percent to C$41.2 million. Revenue rose 2 percent to C$237.1 million.
The adjusted earnings of 73 cents a share topped the 71 cents average expected by analysts, while revenue was in line.
Canada's broadcaster regulator, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, will open a public hearing on the planned takeover in May, after BCE earlier agreed to divest itself of a swathe of Astral's TV and radio assets.
Astral puts the value of the assets BCE plans to retain at C$2.08 billion.
TALE OF TWO COMPANIES
Corus, whose content is primarily targeted at women and children, said net income attributable to shareholders fell to C$5.9 million ($5.8 million), or 7 Canadian cents per share, from C$31.6 million, or 38 Canadian cents per share, a year earlier.
Corus said its merchandise unit lagged after BeyBlade toys failed to sell as well as they did in a wildly successful Christmas period a year ago.
Total revenue fell almost 11 percent to C$183.7 million.
Adjusted income, which does not include the cost of debt refinancing, was C$24.4 million, or 29 cents a share.
Analysts on average expected Corus to earn 36 cents a share on revenue of C$199.7 million, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
RBC Capital Markets analyst Haran Posner said the miss was driven mainly by weak television earnings and a decline in merchandise sales, and that advertising revenue fell, even though management guidance was for low single-digit growth.
Corus, controlled by the Shaw family, which also runs cable company Shaw Communications Inc, is looking to rein in costs as it struggles with unstable audience trends.
It said it would pay a monthly dividend of 8.5 Canadian cents in May, June and July. On an annualized basis, the payout is a more than 6 percent increase on its 2012 dividend yield, according to Reuters data. That is much lower than the average payout gain in recent years.
Corus said in March it would buy some French-language television assets and take full control of other programming in a three-way deal with Shaw and BCE, which has been forced to divest some of its planned Astral purchase to win regulatory approval.
Astral shares slipped a few cents to trade at C$48.85 by mid-afternoon on the Toronto Stock Exchange. Shares of Corus lost C$1.10, a fall of 4.3 percent, to trade at C$24.53. The stock has gained some 17 percent since October.
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