The last seven months have certainly been interesting ones for the broadcast television industry. What have the Chief Financial Officers at some of the nation’s top owners of over-the-air stations been doing to help drive a ship that saw smooth sailing through early March and, since then, has been navigating the choppy waters of a COVID-19 pandemic?
A NAB Show New York virtual roundtable session moderated by BIA Advisory Services Managing Director Rick Ducey offered some insight.
The Thursday morning session (10/22) began with Tom Carter, President/COO and CFO for Nexstar Media Group.
What sort of short-term things has Carter has had to manage through in 2020 and as budgets get wrapped up for 2021, what’s the outlook?
“The biggest shock was just going through the system,” Carter said, noting that the COVID-19 pandemic’s sudden arrival led to a 65% decline in Nexstar’s stock value.
What did Nexstar do? “Take a long, hard look in our expenses,” Carter said, given a 35% year-over-year advertising revenue decline in the second quarter.
Sports betting is a growing category, while the obvious ones — home improvement — has seen “the wind generally at your back” with respect to ad growth. Carter also points to Tulsa; Billings, Mont.; and Lubbock, Tex.; as markets where a significant percentage of staff is back at the office, whereas that’s not the case in New York, where Nexstar maintains a corporate office in midtown Manhattan.
Carter noted that sales commissions and “sales override” were reviewed, and as both have some variables associated with expenses, “that wasn’t going to be enough” with respect to cost management. As such, Nexstar engaged in focused management of discretionary expenses. This has continued through the remainder of 2020, with varying amounts based on ad revenue trends.
As revenue has steadily worked its way back, Carter says, “expense savings are a third of what they were in the second quarter” in Q4.
Carter also offered NAB Show New York viewers a mini-preview of Nexstar’s Q1 2021 visibility: He expects flat to down revenue in the first three months of next year. But, he said, expenses should be down materially. He quipped, “Never take advantage of a good crisis to take the opportunity to look at your expenses.”
The COVID-19 pandemic’s societal shift has led to increased work-from-home scenarios. This has led many media companies to reassess the real estate they need. At Nexstar, the roster of properties is now in focus — and Carter doesn’t think as much will be needed in 2021.
That said, Nexstar has 115 markets. Every one is different, Carter notes. Thus, how Nexstar proceeds with reducing its real estate will be a somewhat thought-provoking endeavor.
For Mike Nelson, EVP/CFO at Fox Television Stations, dealing with a fiscal 2021 that began on July 1 was challenging. “Operationally, one of the things that we have managed to do pretty well is remote working,” he notes, saying it wasn’t easy but has been successful. How are Fox O&Os moving forward? “The base market in April and May looks a lot different than it looks now … we just need to be more flexible and adaptable.”
And, just like at Nexstar, the real estate need in a COVID-19 universe also under the Fox microscope, with a “wait and see” approach as there is an understanding people will be coming back to work. Only, how much space is truly needed is not known.
Victoria Harker, EVP/CFO at TEGNA, was also on the panel. She pointed to Premion, the company’s premium CTV/OTT advertising platform, as a plus for the company. Harker also shared what technologies capture her imagination, and how they may impact the industry. In response, she pointed to ATSC 3.0, and likes the sports betting model, as it could have a broader application than just sports, and betting.
From an operational and financial perspective, “there’s a lot to be gained in AI and the ability to do things more remotely and automated in fashion than we have ever had before.”