Scripps Sees Business Starting To Return
What lies ahead? In today’s quarterly conference call, E.W. Scripps President-CEO Adam Symson told Wall Street analysts what he sees in the future for the television industry. “Today, advertising may be down, but audiences are way up. I am confident that as stay-at-home orders are lifted we’ll see the start of a recovery. Auto dealers will need to sell their cars. Air conditioning systems will once again need to be replaced. And, eventually, travel and leisure spending will resume. As businesses return, we will be there to help them reach their customers. And I expect our actions today will benefit us tomorrow,” he said.
While core advertising for the Scripps stations dropped 40% from March to April due to the COVID-19 pandemic, EVP-CFO Lisa Knutson said ad pacings are improving sequentially month-over-month, with May pacing ahead of April and June pacing ahead of May. Brian Lawlor, president of local media, later added that it is unusual for June to grow over May if advertising were normal.
Lawlor was also asked by Michael Kupinski of Noble Financial about any regional disparity, or small vs. larger markets. “Yes, there was some regionality to it, Michael, depending on what was happening in the state. Obviously, you think of markets like New York City and Buffalo, where they were especially hard hit. You know, the Midwest — Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin — they were very aggressive in many of their stay-at-home orders, too. And so, those have been restricted. There are other states, like Texas, that fared a little better, where we’re in Corpus [Christi] and Waco. Montana fared a little better. Also, when you get to a smaller market you have a little less national advertising. In markets like those where there were less stay-at-home and local is what drives the station, we were able to hang onto more of the business,” Lawlor said.
While it is still early, with some states reopening businesses, Lawlor expects to know more about the recovery in a couple of weeks. “This past week was very reassuring. We saw quite a bit of business that had been canceled four or five weeks ago reinstate their buys. But I think it’s really going to be on a market-by-market basis,” Lawlor said. “The medical category is one of the first to start to bring money back into the ecosystem as non-elective surgeries and so-forth are one of the first things that are opening back up,” he added.
Scripps has implemented cost savings, including pay cuts for top executives, but it has not repeated the furloughs it used in the 2009 recession. When one investor suggested that the company was missing a chance to reduce staff, Symson disagreed with the premise that Scripps employs more people per station than its peers and reiterated that he has no intention of cutting staff.
With local news audiences up because of people staying in their homes, Symson sees long-term changes for TV. “We believe we have moved into a new era of the journalism industry, one in which news — especially local news — is again a must-have for most Americans. This era begins at a time when local broadcast news rooms are uniquely positioned to cover our communities and meet audience demands. Ratings and audience impressions at our local stations have been up on average between 10% and 50%. And that same data shows the Scripps brands are taking a bigger share of the increased attention,” Symson said on the call.
Meanwhile, the company’s Katz digital multicast networks are also seeing higher audience numbers with people staying at home. “Daytime is the new primetime,” Symson commented. So, while Katz has also seen advertising declines, they haven’t been as severe as for the traditional broadcast side. Symons noted that Katz is moving ahead now with its upfront discussions via video calls with advertisers.