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Astral Media Inc.'s pesident and CEO Ian Greenberg. (SHAUN BEST/Reuters)
Astral Media Inc.'s pesident and CEO Ian Greenberg. (SHAUN BEST/Reuters)

Astral boss sees media ad sales getting softer Add to ...

Ian Greenberg makes his living on a host of media properties in radio and TV, but these days it’s the media that have him down.

A sovereign debt crisis in Europe, softening retail sales, gloomy forecasts for growth – from the nightly news to the morning paper, all this bad news is spooking advertisers, according to Astral Media Inc.’s chief executive officer, who announced a record year of revenue in 2011 but said a bumpier road is ahead as the economic climate shifts.

“I think the news machines of most media outlets don't talk about anything that's positive… and so frankly, there's not much enthusiasm for advertisers to feel encouraged to spend the money and I think we've created that kind of atmosphere,” Mr. Greenberg told analysts on a conference call to discuss the company’s fourth-quarter and year end results on Tuesday.

The Montreal-based media company, which operates pay and specialty television channels such as The Movie Network as well as radio stations across the country, and out-of-home advertising including billboards and street furniture, reported revenue of $1.02-billion for the fiscal year – the first time it has passed the billion-dollar mark.

But Mr. Greenberg warned that there could be challenges ahead. While its pay TV channels are ad-free and rely on subscriber fees, the financial performance of Astral’s specialty cable channels, such as Disney XD, and its radio stations are tied to advertiser spending.

Companies that own radio properties such as Astral and Corus Entertainment Inc. often give an early glimpse into where the ad environment is headed – not only because they are often the first media companies to report earnings, but also because radio is a more flexible advertising medium. Radio ads are often bought close to air date, as opposed to TV, where an advertising commitment can be locked in months ahead of time. So when ad budgets shift, radio stations see it almost immediately.

Radio advertising also tends to be purchased by local businesses and retailers, both of which are quick to respond to economic shifts. While radio is not a perfect leading indicator, it does give a sense of advertiser sentiment – which, eventually, also has an impact on the larger TV networks, such as CTV, owned by BCE Inc., and Global, owned by Shaw Communications Inc. The autumn is the biggest season for advertising in many segments of media.

Astral is seeing is not the kind of mass, sharp advertising cutbacks that caused such financial difficulties for media companies in 2008 and 2009, Mr. Greenberg said, but the market is getting softer.

“Last year was a very strong first quarter but there's no question it's a tougher environment we're dealing with as we go into fiscal 2012, particularly for the first quarter,” Mr. Greenberg said.

But, he added, “ I have faith that the media we're in – as long as we evolve our platforms for consumers, make it consumer friendly – that both on the radio side and particularly on the TV side, that there's a long road ahead to grow.”

For the three months ended Aug. 31, Astral’s revenue was $247.6-million, up 3.9 per cent from $238.4-million in the same period last year.

Astral reported profit of $47.8-million or 85 cents per share in the quarter. This was an improvement from a year-ago profit of $38.4-million or 67 cents per share.

Astral is fighting harder to go up against Internet television competitors – services such as Netflix Inc. that deliver movies and television shows over a Web connection instead of a traditional TV subscription. On Monday, Astral announced it had renewed its broadcast rights agreement with NBCUniversal Television Canada, giving it a slate of new releases such as Bridesmaids for The Movie Network as well as older titles for other channels.

It’s the strongest indication so far that Astral is competing heavily with digital competitors as well as in the traditional TV space. Mr. Greenberg said the company is now exploring bringing the equivalent of HBO Go in the U.S., to Canada. That’s the online on-demand home of HBO shows, which are only accessible to those who subscribe via TV. Astral has already been working with cable and satellite providers to make content available on their own websites, such as Rogers on Demand Online, which require subscriber logins to see shows such as Boardwalk Empire.

Roughly 50 per cent of all the viewing of shows on Astral’s channels now happens on demand through TV set-top boxes, Mr. Greenberg estimated. A much smaller share of viewing happens online, but that’s partly because finding those shows has not been easy or convenient for subscribers until now. Mr. Greenberg said Astral will be expanding more to online and mobile devices starting around March next year.

“We've got, by far I've often said, the best content in the world on the paid platform. Where I think the job is for the future is to be able to provide this content to consumers in a friendly way, in a way that they can easily access our programming … on four platforms: the linear TV set, the computer, the tablet and mobile,” Mr. Greenberg said. “That's where we're heading.”

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