CBS’ Moonves Talks 'Transformation' With Digital and Ad Growth

Signage is displayed on the CBS Corp. Television City building in Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Jonathan Alcorn | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Signage is displayed on the CBS Corp. Television City building in Los Angeles, California, U.S.

Despite falling short of analysts' expectations, CBS' fourth quarter earnings set a number of records, the company said.

"We are transforming into a different company, poised to grow in any economy," CEO Les Moonves said on the earnings conference call Thursday evening.

The company is moving from generating as much as 70 percent of its revenue from ads just a few years ago, to just over fifty percent of its revenue from ads.

The stock moved higher Friday morning as Wall Street applauded Monoves' new plan to repurchase an additional $1 billion in stock, doubling its stock buyback for the year.

Quarterly results fell short of expectations: Adjusted earnings of 64 cents per share were up from 57 cents a year ago, but four pennies lighter than expected. Revenue grew two percent in the quarter to $3.7 billion, but Wall Street was expecting $3.8 billion in revenue.

On the earnings call the company stressed a bullish outlook for 2013, anticipating increases in advertising, retransmission fees, and new digital streaming revenue.

"Each new deal we make is better than the last," Moonves said, referring to deals to secure fees from cable and satellite TV providers. With 20 percent of those deals coming up he said "we're looking at significantly better retrains revenue in 2013." And in a sign of confidence in the media giant's future, Moonves announced a plan to repurchase an additional $1 billion in stock, doubling its stock buyback for the year.

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So why the disappointment? Streaming revenues declined from a year ago, when CBS secured a number of big digital deals, which dragged down licensing and distribution revenue down 7 percent. On the upside, the company saw a 3 percent increase in ad revenue, bolstered by political ads, and a 9 percent increase in affiliate and subscription fee revenue.

Moonves put digital growth front and center on the earnings call, talking in some detail about various deals CBS has recently made with Amazon to stream a show premiering this summer. Bottom line: the fact that Amazon is a buyer, along with Netflix and Hulu Plus, is driving up prices. "There's tremendous competition for our content," Moonves said. "The market place continues to develop with many players competing for what we produce." That means investors should expect CBS to figure out ways to generate new revenue from existing content—like past seasons of current hit shows."

Intel's recent announcement of a web TV service was mentioned—Moonves says they're in talks with Intel, as all content providers are." He rejected the idea that Netflix is a competitor to his Showtime network, noting that they're also a buyer of CBS content.

(Read More: Netflix and DreamWorks Hope to Make Magic)

Moonves also added a note about the growing power of social media as an engine for live TV viewing. "The four biggest social media events in history were the Super Bowl, the elections, and the last two Grammys, and CBS had two of them exclusively." Moonves says all that social chatter is helping drive profitability for big live events.

There was some conversation about a deal announced today that helps CBS push further into the cable space. CBS is taking a minority stake in entertainment cable channel AXS, which is owned by Mark Cuban as well as AEG. CBS isn't paying for the stake, but will give AXS promotion as well as what it calls "shoulder programming," like pre- and post-shows at the Grammies.

The outlook for advertising in 2013 is very bullish. Prices for last-minute or "scatter" ad prices are up in the teen percentages above ad sales in the Upfront period last May. The fiscal cliff had an impact on ads this past quarter, particularly on retail advertisers, but Moonves said that after advertisers held back, retail and other categories have "come back nicely in Q1" and "we're very encouraged."

(Read More: What Streaming Media Means for Cable's Future)

Investors got a bit more detail on CBS' plan to spin-off its outdoor US assets into a REIT and sell its overseas outdoor assets. Moonves says the "prospective sale has generated significant interest." As for the US assets, if there are interested buyers, the company will consider them at any point. The company expects the conversion to be finished in the 2013 tax year.

—By CNBC's Julia Boorstin; Follow her on Twitter: @JBoorstin