Star shines for News Corp: Report

NEW DELHI: Buoyed by growth in India and Taiwan, the Rupert Murdoch-controlled Star Group Pvt. Ltd. is on track for $40 million FY 2004 profit as per the September-ended first quarter earnings.



Pointing out that though the September quarter is "historically poor" for Star, the Hong Kong-based Media Partners Asia (MPA) in a report has said that News Corp's latest earnings release for its Q1 FY 2004 (three months to end-September 2003) showed a consolidated operating profit of $ three million for its Asia media subsidiary STAR Group.

MPA also projects a 13 per cent revenue growth for Star in FY 2004 (12 month to end June 2004) to $331 million, continued cost efficiencies, and an operating profit of $42 million.

"We estimate that India will continue to generate the bulk of cash flow and fund losses at Star's emerging operation in tightly regulated China," Media Route 26 pointed out.

It has also been stated that seeing the trend in India, rollout of addressability and subsequent lesser under-declaration, Star's subscription revenue in India would double in five years time.

According to MPA estimates, Star Group racked up a $14 million operating loss for the September quarter. But "significant advertising and subscription revenue gains" at Star Plus in India and advertising growth at Star Mandarin Movies in Taiwan helped the company deliver positive operating income for the first time in this traditionally soft period.

MPA is a publishing and research company dedicated to building content platforms focusing on Asia's media and entertainment industries. MPA platforms include Media Route 26, The Asia Media Journal (a quarterly magazine that offers authoritative analysis of the issues and individuals), Asia Pacific Cable and Satellite markets 2003, Media Conferences and Seminars and Research and Consulting, which is specialised consulting reports to meet the strategic goals of global media companies.

Media Route 26's latest issue states that Star, now led by chief executive Michelle Guthrie (replacing James Murdoch), should be on course to extract more pay TV subscription revenues for its core channels from the region and at the same time, further grow advertising.

The MPA model excludes Star's interests in ESPN-STAR Sports, Phoenix Satellite TV, China Network Systems (Taiwan) and Hathway Cable (India).

Quoting News Corp, the parent company of Star, MPA in its fortnightly industry newsletter Media Route 26 stated, "The improved result was attributable to its (Star's) efforts to reduce costs in preparation for a potential negative change relating to the roll out of conditional access in India."



In FY 2004, MPA estimates that advertising could represent over 60 per cent of Star's consolidated revenues (against under 65 per cent in FY 2003) with subscription under 40 per cent (versus under 35 per cent in FY 2003).

But that subscription revenue too is growing is apparent.

"In FY 2003, Star saw an estimated $75 million in subscription revenues in India, about 35 per cent of the total channel subscription pie ($215 million) in that market.

"With greater declaration and less under reporting, spurred by the gradual rollout of digital satellite and cable services plus video over last-mile telecom networks, Star may be able to double subscription revenues in India in about five years time" the MPA has analysed.

In FY 2003, STAR realised its first full-year operating profit of eight million dollars on revenues of $292 million.

According to News Corp's 9 October filing with the United States Securities and Exchange Commission, Star saw revenue growth of only five per cent in FY 2003, possibly impacted by a major decline in revenues unrelated to advertising and subscription.

In the filing, News Corp had stated: "For the year ended 30 June, 2003, Star's revenues increased five per cent from the corresponding period of the prior year. Subscription revenues increased 22 per cent due to an increase in subscribers and average affiliate fees. Advertising revenues grew nine per cent due to the increasing popularity of the Star channels in Taiwan and India and STAR Plus continuing to maintain its leadership position in India.

"For the year ended 30 June, 2003, STAR reported operating income of A$12 million, as compared to a loss of A$44 million in the corresponding period of the prior year. This increase primarily resulted from the increase in revenues noted above, partially offset by increased expenses, increased advertising and promotional costs in India and the expansion of operations in China."


Going forward, a major challenge for Star would be to own and operate a successful pay TV distribution business, according to MPA.

Its investment in Taiwan's China Network Systems (CNS, in which STAR owns 20 per cent) has been frustrated by a regulatory impasse over the rollout of digital boxes.

"Star's 26 per cent stake in India's Hathway Cable is a strategic move to acquire more subscription from the market although Hathway has limited access to the last mile. Future opportunities may include setting up a DTH satellite platform in India or investing in the fast growing SkyLife (more than one million subs) DTH platform in Korea," the MPA analysis states.

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