Media groups must face the common enemy

The battle in the financially challenged traditional media industry took centre stage on Thursday as Seven West Media and Fairfax Media released results showing bottom-line losses but underlying earnings that were ahead (slightly) of market expectations.

The battle in the financially challenged traditional media industry took centre stage on Thursday as Seven West Media and Fairfax Media released results showing bottom-line losses but underlying earnings that were ahead (slightly) of market expectations.

While Seven's Tim Worner and Fairfax boss Greg Hywood were busy explaining their commitment to content (or storytelling in Seven's case), Nine's owners were beavering away on preparations for a fourth-quarter float and fortifying their arsenal against arch rival Seven.

But the longer-term game is no longer about Murdoch versus Fairfax, or Seven versus Nine. They have a common digital enemy and their respective results make this abundantly clear. I'll get to that later.

Seven and Fairfax, as listed companies, had to spend much of their air time on Thursday explaining their productivity initiatives and defensive inroads into the cost of doing business.

Nine, which has been on a programming and station (Perth and Adelaide) shopping spree, occupies the luxurious space outside the glare of the market, for now.

But its former Nine lenders (come shareholders) are not the natural owners. This is now being tackled with an expedited float that gives them an opportunity to cash out.

The bottom line is that a new level of existential competition has emerged in media when their future is more exposed than ever.

The demerger of Rupert Murdoch's operations into separate print and entertainment divisions has focused the spotlight on the performance of its traditional newspaper organisations. The creation of the new News Corp will provide transparency never seen before.

Already the cracks have started to emerge, with the News Corp Australia chief, Kim Williams, taking his leave a few weeks ago following disagreements with editors about costs and content.

In a perfect world, media companies could stage a content-only battle but the game has moved on. For newspaper businesses, including those owned by Seven and Fairfax, the new competition from online digital classified operators such as Seek and Carsales continues to steal revenue. The challenges were laid bare as Seven West and Fairfax were forced to write down the value of their intangible assets whose returns no longer justify their carrying value. Seek, on the other hand, delivered strong earnings - hostage only to the economy, not structural forces.

Against this backdrop Nine has to convince would-be investors it can out-rate Seven (Ten is a tail-end Charlie in this contest) and do so without overpaying for ratings-generating programs.

At this point Seven has held its lead in ratings and advertising share but Nine has been picking up. For Seven West, the profit after tax of $225 million was a creditable result, as was full-year earnings before interest and tax of $422 million, despite the fact this was 11 per cent down on the previous year. After impairments, the full-year loss was $70 million.

Fairfax reported an 8.2 per cent fall in revenue for the year and a net loss after write-downs of $16.4 million but was rewarded with a share price lift.

So how does Nine mount a compelling case for a float when its rival is admitting to the challenges that confront the free-to-air television industry?

Nine needs to convince prospective investors that if the issue price is right, it can take the ascendancy on ratings and advertising share. But it takes time for ratings improvements to translate into advertising. Traditionally the ratings leader (in this case Seven) will punch above its weight in advertising share and the ratings laggard (Ten) will punch below its weight.

To date, despite Nine's ratings improvements, it has not done enough to deal with Seven's momentum.

Nine will need to market its offering in the expectation of a recovery in ratings and future earnings at a time when industry outcomes are challenged.

All the traditional media candidates, be they print or television, have to continue to get their balance sheets in pristine condition while presenting some prospect of an end game to revenue declines, to appeal to investors.

There is no backlog of Jeff Bezos-type investors (the Amazon founder who recently paid $US250 million for The Washington Post) prepared to fund content for the public/democratic good.

Seven West's ultimate controlling shareholder, Kerry Stokes, undoubtedly likes the power that media ownership provides, but he must have his eye on returns.

Murdoch will support his challenged print assets for as long as he retains power. Fairfax and those that take shares in Nine will need to fend for themselves.

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