Shares of Warner Bros Discovery shot up Thursday amid a down market after the company’s finance chief said the company is done with the restructuring that came with its April acquisition of Warner Media and sees multiple opportunities for growth this year, including potentially raising prices on its direct to consumer streaming offerings.
The stock gained 4%, to $10.81, in afternoon trading, while the broader markets declined over 1% amid concerns that interest rates will continue to rise after another report that showed the job market is still hot. Earlier in the session, it peaked at $11.05.
CFO Gunnar Wiedenfels, in a wide-ranging discussion with analyst Jason Bazinet at Citi’s Communications, Media & Entertainment Conference in Scottsdale, Arizona, on Thursday, offered a series of positive developments for the combined company, including the impending launch of a combined Discovery-HBO Max app, but also acknowledged that the advertising market has not reversed its downward trend.
Wiedenfels said the company is putting its integration efforts behind it as it moves into 2023. The combined company had a series of layoffs and reshuffled top executives last year, and in mid-December said it would book $3.5 billion in charges – $1 billion more than it previously announced – related to the merger.
Now, the finance chief is looking forward, to new content, including DC Comics-related programming, cross-platform promotions to drive viewership to its different offerings and more.
“There’s going to be an enormous amount of flexibility,” Wiedenfels said. “You’ve you’ve seen some of in some of our decision making already, that we’re willing to take that perspective and make rational decisions and we don’t have to have everything, every last title fully exclusive.”
Among the moves he was referencing was the decision last month to pull “Westworld” and “Love Life” from HBO mad and license them to third-party ad-supported streaming services.
“There may be other ways to monetize internally and at times externally as well,” Wiedenfels said. “And we’re willing to you know, run the numbers and form a strategy and make those decisions.”
The drive for monetization comes at a time when advertising trends have not gotten better, the finance chief said, “and if anything have gotten worse” in the U.S. U.K. and Germany. Other markets in Eastern Europe and South America are not seeing as significant a hit, he said.
But he remained optimistic. “I have no doubt it is going to come back,” he said, calling the environment right now “short-term noise.”
“While we’re seeing some small green shoots for Q1, I wouldn’t want to call them the turn here yet,” he arned. “It’s a little more mixed.”
The combined company has a built-in marketing machine that the CFO said it has already started to take advantage of. “One thing that we have started leveraging much more, that we’re going to see more of next year as well, is this enormous marketing power that the company has. We’re reaching 10s of millions of people every day.” That gives the opportunity to use the various linear and app-based platforms to advertise directly to users.
Wiedenfels pointed to its data collection operation several times during the discussion as offering a major advantage to the company, because it helps target advertising.
The finance chief also expounded on streaming app pricing, stating there’s no doubt that these products are priced way too low.
“I think there was this part of the capital market-fueled phase of land grabbing,” he said of the variety of streaming services launched and enlarged in recent years. “You couldn’t lose enough money and couldn’t grow subscribers fast enough.
“I think that’s behind us,” he added. And he pointed to trends that show a number of streaming players are starting to raise prices. “I think there is a there’s a there’s a building consensus that this phase of of dumping pricing is over.”
Wiedenfels hinted that price hikes could be coming. He boasted that the new combined Discovery-HBO Max app “is going to be the best streaming product in the marketplace,” adding, “We’re not priced at that level right now in the U.S.,” adding that the inital rollout of HBO Max was aimed at “the largest number of subscribers, not necessarily value.”
Ad monetization is going to be a “major factor” going foward, he said. “We’ll get more engagement, more subscribers, but then importantly pricing, pricing power.”
Wiedenfels also addressed some of the controversy surround the company’s content purge last year, which included the nearly completed DC film, “Batgirl.”
“We got a lot of public noise about some of the content write-offs that we took, which is a reflection of an industry that went overboard, and that went on a spending frenzy,” he said.
He said no one should expect another surge in content production across the industry like the one driven in the last few years by the explosion of streaming.
“Everyone will begin to get a bit more disciplined and content spending will go down in the aggregate,” Wiedenfels said. “Not just on DTC just in the aggregate.”
We shaved off a lot of the excess Last year and I think that’s something that everyone else in the industry is going to go through,” he said. “We’re coming from an irrational time of overspending, with very limited, focus on on return on investment, and I think others are going to have to make some adjustments that we frankly have behind us.”
That doesn’t mean the company will stop spending, he said. “It’s obviously a hit driven business, you you win some, you lose some,” he said. But he added that the company has “a first flight lineup of creative talent.”
Weidenfel said he expects “significant improvement in the profitability of the DTC business” in 2023.