Rock Band Falls Flat for Viacom, but Profits Soar

Here’s the problem for Viacom, the media conglomerate that brings you both the Rock Band videogame and the “Jersey Shore” reality show: It brings you both the Rock Band videogame and the “Jersey Shore” reality show.

The latter is a hit for Viacom’s MTV, but sales of the once hot videogame have cooled off, which helped push fourth-quarter revenue down three percent, to $4.1 billion. Wall Street was looking for revenue of $4.23 billion.

The good news: Viacom is much more profitable than it was a year ago, due to hits from its Paramount movie studio, higher license fees from its cable subscribers and some serious cost-cutting: After factoring out one-time charges, the company posted earnings of $1.09 per share, much higher than the 87 cents investors were looking for.

This follows cautiously upbeat performances from other big media companies, including News Corp. (NWS) and Disney (DIS).

Worldwide ad revenue was down three percent, and domestic ads were down four percent. But like other cable networks, the fees Viacom extracts from cable providers kept rising, pushing up 11 percent worldwide.

Owen Van Natta Out at MySpace

Owen Van Natta, the prominent Internet executive brought in to overhaul MySpace, has left after less than a year.

News Corp. (NWS), which owns the social network, has replaced the CEO with his former lieutenants, Mike Jones and Jason Hirschhorn, who have been named co-presidents.

It is Van Natta’s second consecutive short-tenured job. Prior to MySpace, he ran music start-up Project Playlist, where he stayed for less than six months. Van Natta built his reputation at Facebook and Amazon (AMZN).

A  press release spins this as a mutual decision between Van Natta and Jon Miller, the News Corp. executive who joined the company less than a year ago himself to run digital operations. But that’s going to be a difficult story to sell.

For starters, it’s clear that attempts to turn the social network around are taking much longer than expected, as News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch acknowledged last week during the company’s earnings call.

Last fall, News Corp. disclosed that MySpace and the rest of the company’s digital portfolio were coming up short on their end of a $900 million, three-year search deal with Google (GOOG), which meant News Corp. would receive around $100 million less than originally anticipated.

That may be in part because of changes the new MySpace leadership made to the site’s design, which cut down on some of the page views the old site created. But the shortfall was primarily because the MySpace audience has been migrating to other sites, particularly Facebook, for some time.

MySpace executives have been overhauling the site, mainly under the hood, and rolling out a series of incremental changes in recent weeks. These changes aren’t supposed to win back Facebook users–the company has declared that it’s no longer trying to compete with that site as a social network anymore–but are designed to help it hang on to existing users and establish itself as some sort of entertainment hub.

A tough task under any circumstance. But tensions in the corporate suite didn’t make it easier. Miller hired Van Natta, but the CEO didn’t bring in the two executives directly beneath him; both Jones and Hirschhorn were hired by Miller (along with Murdoch, who signed off on both men).

People who have talked to Van Natta say he has been relatively public about his frustrations at the job in recent weeks. Describing Jones and Hirschhorn as happy campers would be a stretch, too.

But whatever finally prompted the move seems to have come relatively quickly: The MySpace and News Corp. insiders I’ve talked to so far seem taken aback by Van Natta’s departure.

(Full disclosure: News Corp. owns Dow Jones, which owns this site.)

Here is the official press release from News Corp.:

Owen Van Natta Steps Down as MySpace CEO; 
Mike Jones and Jason Hirschhorn Elevated to Co-Presidents

Los Angeles, CA, February 10, 2010–News Corporation today announced that Owen Van Natta will step down from his position as MySpace CEO, effective immediately. Mr. Van Natta will be replaced by newly-elevated co-Presidents Mike Jones and Jason Hirschhorn, who will each report to Jon Miller, Chairman and CEO of Digital Media for News Corporation.  All three executives joined MySpace in April 2009, with Mr. Jones and Mr. Hirschhorn previously serving as Chief Operating Officer and Chief Product Officer, respectively.

“Owen took on an incredible challenge in working to refocus and revitalize MySpace, and the business has shown very positive signs recently as a result of his dedicated work,” said Jon Miller, News Corporation’s Chairman and CEO of Digital Media. “However, in talking to Owen about his priorities both personally and professionally going forward, we both agreed that it was best for him to step down at this time. I want to thank Owen for all of his efforts.”

Mr. Miller continued, “Mike and Jason have demonstrated true leadership in their operational and product guidance, respectively, and I have the utmost confidence in both of them to lead MySpace into its next chapter.”

In a joint statement, Mr. Jones and Mr. Hirschhorn noted:

“We joined MySpace last April with very a specific set of goals in mind, and are anxious to continue working together to make those goals a reality. This business is now pointed in the right direction, and we have a great team of employees that will continue to push MySpace closer to its potential as the place where people go to be discovered and to discover great content.”

Mr. Van Natta commented:

“MySpace is an incredibly unique place and we’ve made real gains in terms of product focus and user experience.  I’m proud of the work we’ve all accomplished together and look forward to watching its continued growth.”

Prior to his role as MySpace COO, Mr. Jones founded and operated several online businesses, including Userplane, a leading provider of tools for online communities such as MySpace. Userplane was acquired in 2006 by AOL, where Jones subsequently served as a senior vice president and focused on social media monetization and also pioneered the distribution of widgets and other technology to Web publishers. He also was founder and CEO of Tsavo Media, an online content and search network developing next-generation publishing platforms and technology services.

Since joining MySpace, Mr. Hirschhorn oversaw all aspects of product development, and previously has led both start-up and established online businesses. He was president of Sling Media, Inc.’s Entertainment Group, which created consumer-driven applications and services for the Slingbox device, and was chief digital officer at MTV Networks, where he oversaw the company’s digital media businesses, products and strategies. Hirschhorn joined MTV Networks following the acquisition of his company, Mischief New Media, which provided interactive services to the entertainment industry.

How to Report Snow

As you may heard, it snowed last week in Washington, D.C., and today it is snowing in New York City. It also snowed in other parts of the country, but that’s not relevant here because snow in other parts of the country doesn’t inspire massive media overcoverage.

In any case, I’m assuming that the good people at “The Daily Show” will be dissecting said overcoverage very soon. But for now, we’ll have to make do with a British takedown of that country’s snow overcoverage last month, via Charlie Brooker.

I don’t like it quite as much as his more sweeping takedown of TV news in general. But aside from a few problems with the British/American language barrier, it does the job. Thanks to Mike Dunn, via Jeff Jarvis, via Bernie Gershon, for spotting.

Meanwhile, if you’re looking for a respite from snow non-news, Twitter isn’t the worst place to go right now.

“Blizzard” is indeed a trending topic, but Twitterers have other things on their mind as well, like Google Buzz, of course. And, obviously, John Mayer.

But Twitterers have more esoteric interests, too: They’re busy compiling reasons you should “shooturself,” and offering tributes to Captain Phil, whom you may know from “Deadliest Catch.”

Ad Sales, Pay Walls, and Absolutely Nothing About iPads at the New York Times Earnings Call

The New York Times said things got better–or, if you like, no worse–during the last quarter of 2009. But investors are disappointed that the publisher isn’t more optimistic about 2010, and they’re pushing shares down this morning.

Let’s see if the paper’s executives can turn that around during their earnings call. We’ll also be looking for any updates the Times can provide on its pay wall plans, and, of course, its role in the launch of the Apple iPad.

UPDATE: As I noted below, though the New York Times (NYT) was a featured partner at the launch of Apple’s (AAPL) iPad, even sending a small team to Cupertino to create an app a few weeks before the event, there was zero discussion about iPads today.

CEO Janet Robinson made a generalized comment about the growth of the Times’s mobile distribution, but that was it. And not a single analyst showed any interest in this stuff–a good reminder that neither the Times nor Wall Street expects the iPad to be material to the company’s business for quite some time.

Liveblog

On the call: CEO Janet Robinson, CFO Jim Follo, Times Media Group boss Scott Heekin-Canedy, and Digital boss Martin Nisenholtz

In a preamble, CEO Robinson highlights cost-cutting, balance sheet repair, and asset sales (radio station, but not the Boston Globe; the company is still looking at selling its stake in the Boston Red Sox–the process is “complicated” and is “taking longer than anticipated”).

Robinson recaps the pay wall plan, metered approach, etc. Nothing new here so far.

The paper is waiting until 2011 to deploy the pay wall, she explains, because it wants to make “subscribing as smooth and easy as possible….It will take some time to build, deploy and test the best systems.”

Robinson offers a few revenue details, primarily a recap of the earnings release.

Ads by category: National ads down 12 percent, retail down 23 percent, classifieds down 27 percent.

News media online grew four percent, primarily from display advertising (the rest of online growth comes from About.com).

Print ad category decreases came from Hollywood, among others. Ad category increases: Print auto, health care, packaged goods.

Circulation revenue is up because of newsstand, price increases. The Times is benefiting from declines at other papers, because as local papers cut back, it is offering more info than ever. Robinson notes expansion by the paper into local news in the Chicago and San Francisco markets, adding that there are plans on going local in “several” other key markets

Time to brag about new mobile products and applications. The paper counted 75 million page views from mobile and apps in December, and the iPhone app has been downloaded three million times since launch.

Back to digital: Display ads are up, classifieds down; they improved “significantly” as Q4 progressed.

About.com is still the Times’s digital cash machine: Revenue is up 22 percent, and operating profit grew from $10 million to $18 million.

Overall, Internet businesses are up 10 percent and accounted for 15 percent of revenue for the quarter. Online advertising revenue accounted for 23 percent of ad revenue of the quarter.

“Limited” visibility for 2010, which is what’s upsetting The Street, supposedly. But the paper is still “realigning” its cost base.

CFO Jim Follo’s comments may not interest all readers except for this part: The Times is continuing to reduce headcount, he notes, which dropped by 18 percent in 2009. The company is also looking at the benefit structure for both employees and retirees. It froze that awesome supplemental retirement plan that pays certain retirees a very lucrative pension.

We’ve been benefiting from a drop in newsprint prices last couple years, Follo notes, though suppliers are trying to raise prices again, but there’s a supply glut, so we think they’ll have a tough time doing that.

No big capital spending projects are planned. [Presumably, the pay wall is not that expensive to build.]

[Aside: Interesting that NYT.com GM Denise Warren, who's normally on these calls, isn't on today's.]

Questions and Answers

Question: More color on advertising, please.

Scott Heekin-Canedy: We have some optimism, but advertisers are “guarded,” and ads are still bought–or retracted–at the last minute, as they were last year.

Tech, media, health care, and auto ad categories all look promising. The mix is “definitely different” from last year “when it seemed like every single category was down.” Now, many categories are showing “flat to significant growth.”

Question: Are you still optimistic that you can reach a deal on the Red Sox?

Robinson: “Yes we are.” Lots of due diligence, lots of different properties (stake in team, stadium, network, etc.).

Q: What are incremental costs of setting up a pay wall?

Robinson: “We feel this is an elegant solution,” but we want to wait the year and make sure we’re well prepared, etc. Again, integrating home delivery and digital is crucial.

Nisenholtz: Regarding cost, there will be a “modest operating cost” to deploy the tech. We’re hiring a “handful” of people to do that and deploying “modest” capital, but it’s not material.

[Apology: I missed a question on ad categories, though it seems to reprise the earlier question.]

Q: Can you give us a sense of additional cost-savings you can extract this year?

Follo: Nope.

Q: Will your headcount go down again in 2010?

Follo: Yes.

[Missed another question here.]

Next a question about the tax rate, which I can’t imagine anyone reading this cares about.

Q: Can you tell us more about January ad trends, i.e., how much is national vs. local?

Robinson: We won’t break that out (anymore).

Q: Was it materially better than Q4?

Robinson: She repeats her earlier comments from the release. “Very good performance” on the digital side of business. December was particularly good, but we’re not going to be more specific about January.

Heekin-Canedy: That said, we don’t think January is much of an indicator about the rest of the year, anyway. Different beast, not much connection between December [when people were dumping leftover dollars].

[There's a giant disconnect between analysts and the chattering classes here. If the latter ran the call, this would be about nothing but iPad, iPad, iPad. But we're 48 minutes in, and zilch so far. Which is a good reminder: No matter what launches with the tablet this year, this stuff isn't going to have a big impact on Big Media for quite some time.]

Q: Where is growth coming from at About.com?

Robinson: Both consumer packaged goods and display ads. We’ve upgraded the sales channel to go after display and that’s helped a lot.

Nisenholtz: Strong categories include CPC, travel, education and financial services. There’s also retail strength.

Q: Are CPGs new to About.com?

Nisenholtz: Yeah. Well, not exactly. It’s a big site, lots of reach. But we’ve updgraded the sales team and the increase there is part of the payoff. We reach a lot of moms. The Web site skews female.

Q: You may end up paying $60 million to $80 million back into the pension plan. When could that come? Q4?

Follo: Could be sooner than that. We’re in a good position regarding liquidity.

[The final question is about joint ventures that you don't care about.]

And that’s it for the call.

Old News: A New Boss for Universal Music in 2011

This one counts as news in a technical sense, only: The people who own the world’s biggest music company have finally announced plans to bring in new management.

Vivendi says it will install Lucian Grainge as head of its Universal Music Group unit in 2011, replacing longtime head Doug Morris. The Grainge era will really start this summer, since Universal’s international boss will be moving to New York in July, and he and Morris will be “co-CEOs” for a six-month stint.

This one will surprise absolutely no one as it has been in the works for a very long time, and people both in and outside of Universal have been trying to figure out how they’ll fit in after Grainge’s ascension. In the meantime, a more pressing issue for Universal is chatter that the company is looking at yet another round of layoffs this spring.

Release:

Vivendi announced today the appointment of Lucian Grainge as Chief Executive Officer of Universal Music Group (UMG), the world’s leading music company. Mr. Grainge is promoted from his current role as Chairman and CEO of London-based Universal Music Group International (UMGI). He will take up the position on Jan. 1st 2011, succeeding Doug Morris, who will remain as Chairman. He will relocate to New York from July 1st 2010. During these six months, Doug Morris and Lucian Grainge will act as co-CEOs of UMG. Lucian Grainge will report to Jean-Bernard Levy and become a member of the Vivendi Management Board.

Under Lucian Grainge’s leadership since 2005, UMGI has grown its market share worldwide, broken global acts and led the music industry in developing a range of new digital services. He started his career with CBS/April Music in 1979, advancing to positions in Artists & Repertoire (A&R) and talent development, and rising to senior management positions at PolyGram UK and Universal Music internationally.

Doug Morris commented: “The time has come for Lucian to step up to the CEO role. I am very happy with the new organization as I have been grooming him to succeed me for quite a while now. I know he is ready, willing and able to attack the challenges of the new decade.”

Commenting on the appointment, Jean-Bernard Levy, chairman of the Vivendi Management Board, stated: “I am delighted that Lucian Grainge has agreed to move to New York to take on the Chief Executive role. His track record speaks for itself, finding stars, growing revenues and building new business models. He has the right combination of experience and innovation to take UMG forward as the migration into the digital era accelerates.”

Jean-Bernard Levy went on: “I would also like to take this opportunity to thank Doug Morris for the extraordinary results he has achieved over the years in a very tough environment. After starting out as a songwriter in 1965, Doug has overseen 35 years in the business and taken it from Vinyl to Vevo. Lucian will be able to benefit from their period in tandem. I know Doug, as the chairman of UMG, will continue to provide a major contribution to the business and the music industry as a whole.”

Lucian Grainge added: “Stepping into Doug’s shoes is an honour and a privilege. This is a great industry which I believe has as much to look forward to as to be proud of. If we keep getting the basics right of exceptional music and artistry, backed by a great team and sound business sense, then we’ll continue to achieve success.”

Viacom, Real Networks Spin Off Rhapsody Music Service

Real Networks and Viacom are reorganizing Rhapsody, their joint-venture music service and will be spinning it off into an independent company, they told the Securities and Exchange Commission today.

Rhapsody, along with Best Buy’s (BBY) Napster, sell music via monthly subscription, as opposed to Apple’s (AAPL) a la carte download offering. But neither service has been able to gain much traction, despite years of effort.

Real Networks (RNWK) currently owns 51 percent of the Rhapsody, which it started, and Viacom’s (VIA) MTV the remainder. Restructuring will give both companies a 49 percent share, and “one or more minority stockholders” will own the rest.

There are a few other details, spelled out in the SEC filing below (for instance, Real needs to pony up some cash, and MTV gets released from some of the marketing agreements it signed on for a couple years ago). But the takeaway is this: Both companies get to move the money-losing music service off their books, and the new structure may theoretically give them a better chance of finding a buyer for the thing.

Last month Real’s founder, Rob Glaser, announced he was stepping down from the company’s CEO spot. But this reorg has been in the works for a bit: Real alerted shareholders to a possible move back in November.

Here’s the relevant text from the SEC filing:

On February 9, 2010, RealNetworks, Inc. (“Real” or “RealNetworks”), RealNetworks Digital Music of California, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Real, MTV Networks, a division of Viacom International Inc. (“MTVN”), DMS Holdco, a wholly owned subsidiary of Viacom International Inc., and Rhapsody America LLC, a Delaware limited liability company (“Rhapsody”) and joint venture formed by Real and MTVN (together with the other parties listed above, the “Parties”), entered into a Transaction, Contribution and Purchase
Agreement (the “Transaction Agreement”), which contemplates a restructuring of Rhapsody. Real and MTVN formed Rhapsody in August 2007 to jointly own and operate a business-to-consumer digital audio music service. Real currently owns 51% of the equity of Rhapsody and Viacom owns the remaining 49%.

At the closing of the transactions contemplated by the Transaction Agreement, Rhapsody will be converted from a limited liability company to a corporation, and the Parties expect that Real and MTVN and one or more minority stockholders will hold the outstanding shares of Rhapsody such that Real and MTVN will own slightly less than 50%, but an equal amount, of such outstanding shares. Real will contribute $18 million in cash, the Rhapsody brand and certain other assets in exchange for shares of convertible preferred stock of Rhapsody, carrying a $10 million preference upon certain liquidation events. A portion of Real’s cash contribution is to repurchase the international radio business that was previously contributed to Rhapsody. MTVN will contribute a $33 million advertising commitment in exchange for shares of common stock of Rhapsody, and MTVN’s previous obligation to provide advertising of approximately $111 million as of December 31, 2009 will be cancelled. In addition, both the Stockholder Agreement, dated as of August 20, 2007, between Real and Viacom International Inc., on behalf of MTVN, and the Limited Liability Company Agreement, dated as of August 20, 2007, among the Parties will be terminated, including the put and call rights held by Real and MTVN and MTVN’s rights to receive a preferred return in connection with the exercise of Real’s put right.

Real expects that the transactions contemplated by the Transaction Agreement will be completed late in the first quarter of 2010, subject to the satisfaction of customary closing conditions. At the closing, the Parties will enter into a Stockholder Agreement that contains provisions regarding the governance of Rhapsody, stock transfer restrictions and approval of certain corporate transactions. Rhapsody will
be initially governed by a Board of Directors with two directors appointed by each of Real and MTVN and one independent director appointed by mutual agreement of Real and MTVN. At the closing of the transactions, the Parties will also amend certain existing agreements, including the expansion of the technology and intellectual property licenses from Real to Rhapsody relating to the core technologies for the Rhapsody audio digital music service to provide worldwide, perpetual licenses and certain rights for use of the core technologies in business-to-business audio music services.

Upon the completion of the transactions contemplated by the Transaction Agreement, Real expects that it will no longer consolidate Rhapsody’s financial results with Real’s consolidated financial statements.

Book Publishers Beware! At iTunes, Expensive Music Equals Slower Sales.

After years of complaints, last year the music labels finally got what they wanted from Apple–the ability to raise prices on their songs. Last April, iTunes introduced a “variable pricing” scheme, which gave the labels the ability to move prices from 99 cents a song to $1.29 (and for some tracks, down to 69 cents).

The result? Music sales are slowing.

Warner Music Group (WMG) said this morning that it has seen unit sales growth at Apple’s (AAPL) iTunes decelerate since the price increase: Industrywide, year-over-year “digital track equivalent album unit growth” was at five percent in the December quarter, down sequentially from 10 percent in the September quarter and 11 percent in the June quarter.

And since iTunes sales make up the majority of Warner’s digital revenue, growth is contracting there, too. In the last quarter, digital revenue at the label was up eight percent compared with a year earlier, when that number was 20 percent.

The positive spin here is that music downloads are a “mature” business anyway. So by raising prices, the labels are simply extracting whatever value they can.

And indeed, Warner CEO Edgar Bronfman Jr. argued that the pricing change has been a “net positive” for Warner. But he also suggested that in hindsight, perhaps it wasn’t a great idea to raise prices 30 percent during a recession.

So here’s the question for the book industry, which has been working very hard to boost the price for its digital goods: Which lesson do you learn from this?

My gut is that the industry will see this parable the way Bronfman apparently does: If you can move prices up early in the digital adoption cycle, you’re much better off.

During the earnings call, Bronfman sounded a bit wistful as he noted the book industry’s apparent success, with the help of Apple, at raising prices above the $9.99 floor Amazon (AMZN) had set. “It’s interesting that the book publishing industry, on the iPad, has much more flexibility than the music industry had,” he noted.

The counter here is the one that seems obvious to everyone else: Lower prices and you can sell more stuff. Looks like we’ll be getting another real-world test of this economics lesson soon.