News Corp suffers net loss of $ 6.3 billion over Gemstar woes

MUMBAI: Rupert Murdoch's media conglomerate News Corp has reported a full year net loss of $6.3 billion because of another write-down in its stake in the troubled Gemstar-TV Guide International Inc. News Corp's Net loss last year $445 million.

In the fourth quarter, the net loss was $1.7 billion as against a loss of $265 million a year ago. News Corp wrote off $1.9 billion of its stake in Gemstar because of a further decline in the company's stock. News Corp had already taken a $4.23 billion write-off related to Gemstar in its previous quarter. Gemstar, which publishes TV Guide, has been struggling with disputes over patents related to its on-screen programming guides and concerns over the company's accounting and management.

News Corp's performance otherwise was quite positive and it reported annual operating income growth of 11 per cent to $1.9 Billion, fueled by a 78 per cent Increase in filmed entertainment and 88 per cent improvement in cable networks. News Corp reported full year consolidated revenues of $15.2 billion, a 10 per cent increase over the $13.8 billion in the prior year. Fourth quarter revenues were $3.8 billion an increase of 11 per cent over the $3.4 billion reported a year ago.

Commenting on the results, Murdoch said: "The past fiscal year has been a time of extremely difficult operating conditions in markets and economies around the world - which makes the growth we have achieved all the more significant. Our Fox operations - in particular our film studios, television production business, local TV stations group and cable channels - are enjoying the success that comes with market leadership and expanded distribution. And both BSkyB in the UK and our pan-Asian Star platform were able to convert the potential of their premier digital satellite TV services into operating profitability by the end of the year."

"After a sluggish first six months of the fiscal year, including our recovery from the operational effects of September 11th, we have seen an improvement in both the American and international advertising markets. Strong upfronts at our FOX network and cable channels, in addition to improved pacings at our television stations group, are good indications of our ability to capitalize on an advertising recovery. And our newspapers in Australia and the UK - having demonstrated great resilience by growing circulation in downturned economies - are well positioned for a rebound in advertising revenues.

"Obviously, we were disappointed by the write-downs of our investment in Gemstar, which we took during the year due to that company's declining share price. Nonetheless, we are working closely with Gemstar's management to take the necessary steps to restore the value of that important asset.

"Overall, at the end of an economically trying year for companies around the world, the strength of the Company's free cash flow and resulting solid balance sheet is particularly noteworthy. We were able to reduce debt substantially and increase our year-end cash position. Looking forward, we are in an excellent position for continued profit improvement as we advance into our new year with a lower cost structure and signs of an improving marketplace."

The Filmed Entertainment segment reported fourth quarter operating income of $75 million, compared to a loss of $3 million in the same period a year ago. The substantial increase over prior year was primarily driven by the blockbuster worldwide theatrical performance of Ice Age combined with the strong domestic video performance of Behind Enemy Lines and pay-TV contributions from several titles, including Planet of the Apes. These contributions were partially offset by the impact of marketing costs associated with fourth quarter theatrical releases.

For the year, Filmed Entertainment reported record operating profit of $473 million, which was $208 million higher than a year ago. This notable performance was primarily driven by a string of successful releases during the year including Planet of the Apes and Ice Age, as well as by previous year hits in ancillary markets including Moulin Rouge and Dr Dolittle 2. Twentieth Century Fox Television (TCFTV) also contributed to the Filmed Entertainment fourth quarter and full year earnings increases reflecting several established series entering the syndication market, most notably Buffy the Vampire Slayer, King of the Hill and The Practice, as well as increased network license fees for 'Dharma and Greg'. These gains were partially offset by higher production costs associated with a greater number of series in the current year. TCFTV remains the top supplier of network series with 21 picked up for the upcoming broadcast season, including seven new shows.

The Television segment reported fourth quarter operating income of $179 million versus pro-forma operating income of $199 million in the same period a year ago and full year operating income of $458 million versus pro-forma operating income of $621 million in fiscal 2001. Fox Television Stations' (FTS) fourth quarter operating income grew $59 million versus the pro-forma results from a year ago as FTS benefited from the improving advertising market coupled with year-over-year market share gains. For the full year, FTS operating profits grew $26 million versus the pro-forma results from a year ago as the FOX affiliated stations improved market share by seven percent compared to the prior year. This share gain is primarily due to strong local news and syndicated product, particularly Seinfeld, as well as the replacement of the afternoon Fox Kids programming block with stronger first run shows. In addition, the station group benefited from the FOX network's broadcast of Super Bowl XXXVI and strong ratings from the Major League Baseball 2001 post-season. The soft advertising environment, prevalent for much of the year and exacerbated by the terrorist attacks on 11 September plus higher programming costs, partially offset the market share gains.

In Asia, Star continued to improve its operating results in the fourth quarter, generating its second consecutive quarter of positive earnings contributions, as compared to operating losses a year ago. The improvements resulted in a more than 50 per cent reduction in full year operating losses versus fiscal 2001. The quarter and full year gains were fueled by revenue growth of 9 per cent and 15 per cent, respectively, primarily due to subscription and advertising revenue increases, particularly at Star Plus in India. Star Plus has maintained its leadership position as the number one cable channel in the region and now broadcasts, on average, 19 of the top 20 Hindi programs. Star's revenue gains were partially offset by increased programming and channel costs as Star continues to expand its local language offerings to further drive the platform's distribution and ratings across the region.

Information available with indicate Indian operations contributed a whopping 60 per cent of Star TV's annualised top line earnings for Asia of $ 450 million for the 12 months up to June 2002.

Cable Network Programming, comprising the Fox News Channel, Fox Sports Networks (including the Regional Sports Networks (RSNs), the FX Channel and Speed Channel), the Los Angeles Dodgers and other cable-related businesses, reported fourth quarter operating income of $34 million, an improvement of $35 million over last year's results, and full year operating income of $199 million, a $93 million improvement over prior year. This success reflects growth across all of the Company's cable television channels, despite a partial offset from a $30 million charge related to the bankruptcy of Adelphia Communications taken in the fourth quarter. The Fox News Channel (FNC) reported operating income growth of $22 million in the fourth quarter and $51 million for the full year primarily due to significant increases in both affiliate and advertising revenues. Affiliate revenues were driven by the addition of 12 million subscribers in the past year, which expanded the subscriber base to 80 million at fiscal year-end. Strong ad sales were fueled by exceptional ratings growth as well as increased pricing and distribution. For the second consecutive quarter, FNC was the most watched cable news network, despite being in six million fewer homes than CNN. FNC's fourth quarter viewership was up 140 per cent on a 24-hour basis and nearly 100 per cent in primetime while for the year 24-hour viewership was up 127 per cent with primetime up over 92 per cent.

The Magazines and Inserts segment reported fourth quarter operating income of $64 million, in line with a year ago as higher revenues from an increased page count at the Free Standing Inserts division were offset by higher coupon distribution costs. The Newspaper segment reported fourth quarter operating income of $117 million, in line with the same period a year ago. Recent advertising revenue increases were offset by circulation revenue declines, primarily from The Sun's discounted pricing to match the competition in the UK. For the full year, operating income of $430 million declined 12 per cent versus the prior year as cost savings initiatives and circulation revenue growth were more than offset by a weak advertising environment in the Company's major newspaper markets. HarperCollins reported operating profit of $13 million during the fourth quarter, 44 per cent above the same period a year ago and full year profit of $118 million, which was 6 per cent higher than fiscal 2001. Contributing to the strong quarterly results were an array of bestsellers, as well as several highly successful books connected to major film releases, led by Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. For the year, the company's record profits were driven by the solid performance of all divisions worldwide fueled by the success of JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy, Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events and Pamela Stephenson's biography of comedian Billy Connolly.

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