* Italy ad sales slightly down in Q1, higher in April
* Hard to make reliable forecast on Italy, Spain trends
* FY operating profit 246 mln euros vs 206 mln expected
* CFO cools down speculation of pay-TV stake sale (Adds quote, detail on April ad sales, comments on pay-TV)
MILAN, March 25 (Reuters) - Italy’s biggest TV broadcaster Mediaset, having beaten 2013 profit expectations by cutting costs more than anticipated, said advertising trends in its core Italian and Spanish markets this year were unpredictable due to economic uncertainty.
“It’s impossible to make any forecast. Much will depend on the economic recovery, on consumption trends especially in the consumer goods and automotive sectors,” Luigi Colombo, head of Mediaset’s advertising arm Publitalia, told a conference call.
The company, controlled by former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, said advertising sales in Italy in the first three months of 2014 were still slightly negative but improved markedly in April.
Colombo said the April growth so far was a high single-digit rate. Ad spaces are sold in advance, so most of April has already been marketed.
Mediaset, which makes the bulk of its turnover by selling advertising spaces on its free-to-air channels such as Canale 5, said revenues fell about 8 percent to 3.41 billion euros in 2013, hit by an economic recession.
The figure was slightly below a Thomson Reuters analyst consensus of 3.44 billion euros.
Big spenders such as the auto sector, food companies and telecoms operators cut their spending on Mediaset outlets between 10 and 20 percent last year. Only financial companies increased advertising by around 6 percent.
Earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) turned to a profit of 246 million euros in 2013 from a loss of 235 million euros in 2012, beating a Thomson Reuters analyst consensus for 206 million euros.
Cuts to TV staff and other operating costs and lower investment in Italian business generated cash savings of 617 million euros in 2013 compared to 2011.
That is above Mediaset’s original target of 450 million euros by end 2014.
The group returned to an annual profit of 8.9 million euros in 2013 after posting in 2012 its first ever annual net loss of 287 million euros due write-downs on sports TV rights.
CFO Marco Giordani said Mediaset was not studying any sale of a stake in its Italian pay-TV business Mediaset Premium even though it has received unsolicited acquisition proposals. ($1 = 0.7258 Euros) (Reporting by Danilo Masoni; Editing by Stephen Jewkes and Anthony Barker)