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Arbitron Inc. (NYSE:ARB)

Q3 2008 Earnings Call Transcript

October 21, 2008 10:00 am ET

Executives

Thom Mocarsky − SVP, Press and IR

Steve Morris − Chairman, President & CEO

Sean Creamer − EVP, Finance and Planning & CFO

Analysts

Alexia Quadrani − JP Morgan

Troy Mastin − William Blair & Company

Jim Boyle – CL King

Operator

Good morning. My name is Kashina and I will be your conference operator today. At this time, I would like to welcome everyone to the third quarter 2008 earnings call. All lines have been placed on mute to prevent any background noise. After the speakers’ remarks, there will be a question-and-answer session. (Operator instructions). Thank you. I would now like to turn the call over to Thom Mocarsky. Mr. Mocarsky, you may begin your conference.

Thom Mocarsky

Thank you Kashina and good morning ladies and gentlemen and welcome to Arbitron's third quarter 2008 earnings conference call. I'm Thom Mocarsky, I’m the Senior Vice President for Press and Investor Relations at Arbitron and I’ll be your moderator for today’s call.

Today, I have the pleasure of introducing Steve Morris, Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer; and Sean Creamer, our Chief Financial Officer. In today's call, Steve and Sean will review Arbitron's activities, accomplishments, and financial results for the third quarter of 2008. They will also make some comments about our expectations for the full year of 2008. After the presentation, Steve and Sean will be happy to take your questions.

But, before we begin today's presentation, I do want to note that this morning's discussion includes forward-looking statements. These forward-looking statements are within the meaning of the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995. These statements are based on our current expectations about future events. Arbitron has derived these expectations from information currently available to us. Actual results might differ materially from results projected in forward-looking statements, which involve known and unknown risks.

For a discussion of the factors that could cause actual results to differ materially from these forward-looking statements, please refer to the Arbitron's 10-K for the period ended December 31, 2007. A copy of that 10-K is on file with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

At this time, I want to turn the call over to Steve Morris, our Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer.

Steve Morris

Thank you, Tom. Good morning everybody. This may not be a long call because of all the legal maneuvering going on that has effected a limit on how much we can say and we certainly act with respect relating on what outcomes might emerge from the many actions underway. So I hope you will forgive us if we are a more bit more reticent than usual.

Before I get to lay out on where we stand on the political, legal and regulatory front, I do want to state the obvious (inaudible) the media business and radio business specifically. There have now been 17 consecutive months of downticks in radio industry revenue.

Some of this is a direct result of the much publicized weakness in the overall economy. But we believe some also comes from the relative weakness of the radio's positioning on the subject of accountability versus other media.

The importance of moving on to a PPM platform has never been stronger and they account from the standing (inaudible) crowds of radio buyers and sellers that we’ve experienced as we kicked off each new PPM market. At the speed level, we observed that many in the industry are chopping off a bit to move forward and to present a new face for radio to the buyers of media time.

Addressing the impact to the environment on our business, on the one end, our rating services are generally provided under long-term contracts and visibility and future revenue trend is good. However, those services that we provide that are not essential items for our customers such as these software products even Scarborough do feel the effect of fewer discretionary dollars available.

There are also some renewals in non-PPM markets that likely could be affected. As expected, this is having some impact on 2008, and the effect will no doubt carry over into 2009, with perhaps 1% to 2% of growth rate at risk.

With all this as background, we did commercialize PPM in new markets on October 6 and we’re currently planning to commercialize four more in December. This has been an enormous effort on the part of people of Arbitron and it’s very encouraging to see the quality metrics not only hold up but steadily improve over the last few months when these panels were completed.

Focusing now on our diary-based service, the remaining markets, we recently announced several important enhancements. We planned at households to our sample frame that use only cell phones, a growing group that cannot be reached using our landline-phone frame. This is similar to what we do on the PPM sample. We also plan to accelerate a long-term project to evolve the diary increasingly toward an online approach. So the underlying business continues to move forward.

Let me describe where things stand now from a legal point of view. Most of you are update on this, so if you follow the trades, that gives a quick overview. On October 6, we commenced the civil action in the United States District Court in the Southern District of New York seeking a declaratory judgment and injunctive relief against the New York Attorney General. And on October 10, Arbitron brought a civil action in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey seeking a declaratory judgment and injunctive relief against the New Jersey Attorney General. In each case seeking to prevent any attempt by the Attorneys General to restrain our publication of our PPM listing estimates. These proceedings are pending.

Also on October 10, the State of New York commenced litigation against Arbitron in the Supreme Court of New York, the New York County alleging false advertising and deceptive business practices and violation of New York consumer protection and civil rights laws, and the State of New Jersey commenced litigation against Arbitron in the Superior Court of New Jersey for Middlesex County alleging violations of New Jersey consumer fraud and civil rights laws, in each case relating to marketing and commercialization in those states of our portable people meter radio ratings service.

The state court actions contain similar factual allegations that generally seek several penalties and to prevent us from continuing to publish our PPM listing estimates in New York and New Jersey. Arbitron denies these allegations and we intend to defend the company and its interest vigorously.

On October 9, the company informed that its Executive Officers including Sean and myself received subpoenas from the New York Attorney General regarding among other things the commercialization of the PPM radio ratings service in New York and purchases and sales of Arbitron’s securities by those Executive Officers. Relative to the FCC, a petition was filed requesting that the FCC conduct a Section 403 investigation relating to PPM. Arbitron filed a response, there were comments, reply comments filed and the open comment period is now over. There has been no decision yet by the FCC. Chairman Kevin Martin has publicly questioned whether the FCC has jurisdiction in this matter.

So these are challenging times. The good news is that we still believe our basic business is solid. Revenue growth moved up to plus 9.9% in the third quarter as we commercialized the eight new markets. At the same time, cost expenses were up by 14.5% as expected, primarily driven by the requirements of building the panels before launching our PPM service and by the initial wave of legal expenses. EPS (inaudible) share a year ago.

I want to highlight that the various legal and governmental scenarios proceed at an accelerated rate to the end of the year. It would result in earnings for the year moving to the lower end of our guidance range of $1.30 to $1.44. This reflects the substantial and unfortunately not entirely predictable costs associated with the actions that I just described, as well as the impact of Hurricane Ike which has caused to suspend reporting from the Houston panel for three weeks and incapacitated our Houston polling center.

We expect most of the impact of these one-time events to hit the fourth quarter as opposed to the third, whether any of these legal issues and expenses are likely to spill over into 2009 is one of those speculations that we're unable to make at this time. All this requires a more detailed explanation, and for that, I will now hand off to Sean.

Sean Creamer

Thanks Steve and good morning everyone. I’m going to spend a few minutes reviewing our financial results for the third quarter and year-to-date and then provide some color on that performance and I’m going to open up the call for questions.

So, let’s start with our financial results. For the third quarter, revenue was $102.5 million, up $9.2 million or 9.9% compared to the third quarter of last year. Now we clearly benefited in the third quarter from PPM pre-currency revenue from the markets we recently commercialized. Partially offsetting that was a reduction year-over-year in Scarborough revenue of nearly $900,000 and that's primarily due to eight markets that delivered in June of this year but in July last year, as well as a reduction of approximately $300,000 in equipment sales relating to our international licensing business.

Cost of revenue was $41.8 million in the third quarter, up $7.3 million or 21.3% when compared to the same period last year and this was noted last quarter. We are incurring incremental costs relating to the management of the PPM panels for previously delayed markets as well as recruitment of the PPM panels in Atlanta, DC, Dallas, Detroit, and Boston. They’re scheduled to commercialize in the fourth quarter of this year, or in the case of Boston, in the first quarter of next year.

Specifically, we had an average of nearly of 29,500 panelists during the third quarter of this year versus 13,300 in 3Q ’07. We’re 100% complete with the recruitment for the panels scheduled to commercialize in 4Q ’08 and 1Q ’09. In addition, we’ve begun recruiting for a number of markets that are scheduled to commercialize in the second quarter of next year, including Miami, Seattle, Phoenix, Minneapolis, and San Diego.

In general, trends in recruitment for our research companies remain challenging and we continue to evaluate alternatives for continuously improving PPM and diary services, including modifications to our respondent incentive programs and particularly are targeted towards the very challenging young person demos. We contemplated declining response rates in our guidance and so far it's proven to be the case, which further explains the variance in cost of revenue.

Selling, general and administrative expenses were $20.1 million for the third quarter, nearly 6% increase from the $19 million reported in the third quarter of ’07. Legal expenses alone represented a $1.4 million increase year-over-year as we are vigilantly defending ourselves on a number of important fronts that Steve alluded to.

For the quarter, share-based compensation was $2.1 million, most of which is reflected in the SG&A line, that’s up from the $1.6 million we reported in the third quarter of ’07. These increases for the quarter more than offset the savings we have noted in prior calls associated with some of the structural cost reduction initiatives that we’ve implemented in the second half of last year in our corporate, sales, and marketing areas. Research and development expense was $10.3 million; that's up $687,000 or 7.2% compared to the third quarter of last year. IT expense, a significant component of our R&D, line was up modestly from the third quarter of last year.

Our equity net loss at affiliates was $2.2 million for the quarter. That’s a $1.1 million reduction from the $3.3 million loss we’ve reported in the third quarter last year. Now, almost all this variance is attributable to our $1.2 million share of the Apollo LLC loss in the third quarter of ’07. As you know, the LLC was liquidated during the second quarter of this year and therefore, no Apollo loss is reflected this quarter.

As we noted when we announced the decision to shut down Apollo, we believe that the learning from that experience support our thesis that single source multimedia solutions that leverage PPM have a place in the market. Therefore, we continue to invest in this important area, albeit at reduced levels.

Our share of the Scarborough joint venture's net loss for the third quarter was $2.2 million and this compares to a loss of $2 million recorded in the third quarter of ’07. Scarborough historically generates a loss in the third quarter due to its product delivery schedule. This year, none of the 180 total market deliveries for the year occurred this quarter and therefore very little revenue is recognized.

For the quarter, net interest expense was $517,000 versus net interest income of $459,000 in last year’s third quarter. Increased borrowing on our credit facility and a reduced interest income attributable to our lower cash balances obviously drove that change.

Income taxes on continuing ops for the third quarter were $10.8 million and net income was $17 million or $0.63 per diluted share compared $17.2 million or $0.58 per diluted share for the third quarter of last year.

Earnings before interest and taxes were $28.2 million for the quarter, up $1.1 million from the $27.1 million that we reported in the third quarter of last year. Depreciation and amortization for the quarter totaled $4.6 million versus $3.3 million in 3Q ‘07 and we had capital expenditures for the quarter of $9.3 million. EBITDA for the quarter was $32.8 million versus $30.4 million generated in 3Q ’07 and our cash flow from operations for the quarter was $13.1 million.

Turning our attention to the year-to-date results for the first nine months of 2008, revenue through September was $275.2 million, up $16.9 million or 6.5% when compared to the same period last year. Our year-to-date cost of revenue was $129.5 million, that’s up 20% versus $107.9 million reported in the first nine months of last year.

Selling, general and administrative expenses were $58.6 million during the first nine months, that’s down about $750,000 or 1.3% when compared to the same period last year. Share-based compensation totaled $6.4 million through September.

Year-to-date research and development expense was $29.8 million, that’s down $2.2 million or 6.9% compared to the prior year. Our equity and net loss of our affiliates was $973,000 year-to-date versus net loss of $1.9 million through nine months of last year. Again, our share of loss in the Apollo LLC was the primary driver that was $1.9 million year-to-date compared to $3 million last year, while our year-to-date share of income in Scarborough was $930,000, that’s down $165,000 versus last year.

The resulting EBIT was $56.4 million year-to-date, that’s down $729,000 from $57.1 million that we reported in the same period last year. During the first nine months of this year, net interest expense was $942,000 versus net interest income of roughly $1.5 million last year. And again the increase in interest-bearing debt and the reduction in interest earned on our lower cash balances and cash equivalents drove the change.

Income taxes from continuing operations reported during the first nine months of 2008 were $21.6 million, representing a projected effective tax rate for the year consistent with our full year expectation of roughly 39%. Year-to-date net income was $33.8 million this year or $1.23 per diluted share compared to $36.5 million or $1.21 per diluted share for the first nine months of 2007.

Depreciation and amortization through September was $12.7 million versus $8.7 million during the first nine months of last year, with the increase attributable to CapEx required to support PPM initiatives over the course of the last few years. Capital expenditures so far this year totaled $22.7 million.

Year-to-date EBITDA through September is $69.1 million, that’s up from the $65.8 million generated in the same period last year, and our cash flow from operations year-to-date is $44.4 million, that’s up nearly 10% from last year. This increase in cash flow from operations despite a $729,000 decrease in EBIT is reflective of the increases in non-cash expense items such as depreciation and amortization as well as share-based compensation.

We are reiterating our revenue growth of 8% to 10% with revenue through the first nine months of 2008 of 6.5% versus last year. Our guidance implies an acceleration of topline growth in the fourth quarter of 2008 as a result of the scheduled commercialization of PPM market.

Just a few comments on our full year EPS guidance of $1.30 to $1.44. When we announced our initial guidance back in February, the range was intended to contemplate various scenarios. However, we obviously cannot contemplate all potential outcomes. For example, as Steve alluded to earlier, Hurricane Ike had a significant impact for us.

As a result of the dislocation of residents during the hurricane, we recently announced that we would be issuing PPM data in Houston from the three of the four weeks in September, and at most two of the four weeks in October. We estimate the lost revenue associated with this to be in the neighborhood of $500,000.

We also operate a call center in Houston that's been closed (inaudible). We back-filled the lost capacity by running more shifts in our other two call centers. However, the cost associated with these actions are substantial in the range of $1 million. Obviously, we are investigating potential insurance recoveries but nothing has been resolved on that front.

In addition, cost and expenses related to litigation and also to other interactions with governmental entities primarily regarding our PPM radio ratings service have been substantial. We are estimating that the related 2008 legal and governmental costs for the balance of the year could be in the range of $4 million to $6 million.

Therefore, at this time and based on the information we currently have available, we anticipate that if all of the ongoing litigation and governmental entity activity were to continue at current levels and we were to continue to incur related expenses at current rates through the end of the year, our 2008 earnings per share would be at or near the bottom of the current guidance range. However, these matters are fairly fluid and at least with respect to the ongoing legal matters impossible to predict. We will provide additional updates as necessary.

From a balance sheet perspective, we ended the quarter with an $8.5 million in cash and long-term debt outstanding of $70 million as we've levered up a bit during the year to financed share repurchases. And as you know, we have Board authorization for stock purchase program of up to $200 million that extends through December 31, 2009. As of the end of the third quarter, we have acquired more than 2.2 million shares at a cost of approximately $100 million. Of that, 875,500 shares were purchased during the third quarter.

That concludes my comment. And with that, let me turn it back to Kashina and ask that we open the call up for questions.

Question-and-Answer Session

Operator

(Operator instructions) Your first question comes from Alexia Quadrani of JP Morgan.

Alexia Quadrani − JP Morgan

Thank you. A couple of questions. I guess the first one is, if you can give us a bit more color on your commentary about the renewal of − renewal issues in the diaries and is that specific to some smaller markets or is there one particular broadcaster that's going through these issues?

Steve Morris

It's primarily in the smaller markets. It's a reflection of the environment I think in just the – there are broadcasters, generally small ones, that are kind of on the edge and kind of floated in and out of our service depending on how they're doing, and so I think it's primarily concentrated amongst those broadcasters than in the smaller markets.

Alexia Quadrani − JP Morgan

Is this something that you've seen in past periods of economic weakness?

Steve Morris

Yes, we have and I think it's (inaudible) one to know how it's going to open up and shake out, but it's not an unusual event.

Sean Creamer

I think also, and we've noted this in the past, I think it at least is partially impacted by the reality of the PPM pricing uplift hitting at the same time. So the discretionary spin is always the first belt tightening in difficult economic times. But on top of that, obsorbing the uplift for the currency as these markets commercialize I think certainly differentiates this from perhaps other times.

Alexia Quadrani − JP Morgan

And can you talk a bit about I guess the scenario of potential bankruptcy of one or several of your customers in the industry broadcasters? And I guess where − at what point would they terminate I guess the subscription of your service or how I guess even legally are they obligated to continue to pay for either diary or PPM?

Steve Morris

Well, without getting into a lot of the legal specifics, our contracts are specific to stations and so at the start, what's happened if one station sells to another group and the contract passes along with that station. So when you think about the radio industry, I think it's important to remember that the individual stations tend to be quite profitable and that the financial issues at the corporate level with a lot of leverage that was laid out historically. And so, I think the extent that the individual stations are viable and the contracts pass with those stations that we would use this as something that would survive a lot of economic turmoil in the market.

Alexia Quadrani − JP Morgan

And then just lastly, I'm sorry if you mentioned and I missed it, but are you reiterating your guidance for 2009 right now?

Steve Morris

Yes. We maintain the existing range, but obviously given the ongoing activities suggested, the impact of those could drive us down to the low end of that range.

Alexia Quadrani − JP Morgan

For 2009, I think previously you'd mentioned you're looking for a double-digit revenue growth in March and possibly higher earnings growth. Is that still what you expecting for '09?

Steve Morris

Yes. We have not made any change to that.

Alexia Quadrani − JP Morgan

Okay. Thank you very much.

Operator

Your next question comes from the line of Troy Mastin, William Blair and Company.

Troy Mastin – William Blair and Company

A quick follow up to the question regarding the non-PPM markets you mentioned in your prepared remarks. Can you frame first the risk to revenue at all, if some of these things were not to come through as you would like?

Steve Morris

Well, the way − Troy, the way that I described it was that adding together the effect of the environment on these what I called non-discretionary or what I call the discretionary expense items like Scarborough and particularly some of our newer software products, and if you add that to the – it's very hard to forecast, but as we see it, the potential risk of some non-renewals primarily in slower markets. That's what I said by it'd add up to 1 to 2 points of revenue growth rate.

Troy Mastin – William Blair and Company

If I'm looking for any framing of the total exposure, you think there might be in the non-PPM or the diary markets some of these kind of just smaller operators or if there's some other or maybe very specific contracts, and they've got a couple contracts up? Just to understand the total revenue that might be at risk or maybe you haven't done that exercise.

Steve Morris

Well, I don't think it's something we're prepared to talk about right now. I think − no, it's important to know that I think we will have 89% of our revenue on the books as we go into the next year. So we'll start with a lot of long-term contracts in place and a relatively small amount of total renewals. But that's about as far as I think I could take it right now.

Troy Mastin – William Blair and Company

Okay. Great. And then, I wanted to ask a question about the cell phone-only household recruitment that you've launched. Can you give us a little detail on how the cost of recruitment compares in a cell phone household versus a landline household?

Sean Creamer

Yes. I think I have mentioned in the last call it is significantly more expensive for us as a multiple of the cost of doing a non-cellphone-only household because we can't take advantage of random digit dialing technology under current legislation. We're precluded from doing that, so we are moving forward and evaluating opportunities to make what is currently a very manual process of doing it to automate that and we are encouraged by what we are seeing in terms of ways to make it more efficient than we're doing it right now. But obviously if we don't find that solution and we're confident we will, that's a significant driver of our cost. In the order of magnitude, it's three to four times more expensive to recruit cellphone-only households versus landline.

Troy Mastin − William Blair & Company

And are you getting a representative number of panel members that are cellphone-only households in your panels now? I think roughly 15% to 20% of households no longer have landlines, so is it fair to assume your panel is made up of a similar make up?

Steve Morris

We actually are not at that level, but we are at a level high enough so that with waiting we bring it up to that level.

Sean Creamer

And it's important that that number depending on the source is very different in terms of penetration and that penetration varied by market. So we're obviously committed to having a representative panel and we're currently able to do that through a combination of cellphone-only recruitment and waiting mechanisms (inaudible).

Troy Mastin − William Blair & Company

If you are unable to bring those costs down and say stayed at the same sort of relative multiple to landline households, could you still achieve your long-term margin targets or in order to make those, you need to bring those costs down to be more efficient?

Steve Morris

Well, I mean our goal is always to make things more efficient. I think what your question suggests us trying to speculate into five years from now which is difficult. We've highlighted that as a wildcard because it is an evolving and rather fluid situation and it's expensive and it's our job to highlight those. We are confident right now that we've got a path towards making it more efficient, but obviously there are no guarantees, and if you got a line item that is significantly more expensive than your business models suggest, you'd certainly do have to find efficiencies elsewhere to compensate.

Troy Mastin − William Blair & Company

Okay. And then regarding share repurchases, it doesn't sound like you've changed your tenure to tone [ph] at all, correct me I am wrong, but some other companies have alternate share repurchase programs given the credit crisis. Have you changed at all? Do you have any plans to change, at least in the near term?

Steve Morris

Well, I think our answer is we've always executed our approved authorization through a disciplined and methodical approach. We don't comment on when we are or are not in the market and I think our view is we had a practice that we've executed over the course of the last four years and there is no further commentary we're going to get relative to that. But fundamentally, there is no change.

Troy Mastin − William Blair & Company

Okay, thank you.

Operator

(Operator instructions) Your next question comes from the line of Jim Boyle from CL King.

Jim Boyle – CL King

Good morning. Steve, historically your radio clients have had revenue growth in the 4% to 8% range even before recessionary impact aggravated their secularly challenged situation that had dropped to kind of sluggish low single-digit revenue upticks, and they turned negative in '07. When those long-term contracts come up for renewal as you noted, whether it would be 2009 or 2010, and I am not talking about the small market guys, will that dampen Arbitron’s typical annual rate escalator given radio’s deeply negative year-on-year revenue?

Steve Morris

Impossible really to speculate on that Jim. It's a long way out. And certainly our hope would be that over the course of the years while we are rolling out PPM there is also some improvement in the radio’s overall revenue growth which has improved the environment. Ultimately we try to price on value and this is an expensive service to produce. We think it has a lot of value to the industry and I very much hope and expect that as the industry digs into the data as we're already hearing a lot of anecdotal stories to support and find that they can really improve their programming, generate greater loyalty and really improve the quality of that audience as well as the size and they find that their accountability scores, if you will, with buyers improved that by the time these contracts come up for renewal, that the value perceived in PPM will be considerably higher than even as it is today. So if that is in place then I think our ability to negotiate anchor [ph] renewals will be just fine.

Jim Boyle – CL King

Will part of the cell-only recruitment additional cost be passed along?

Steve Morris

Ultimately, our cost structure has to be taken into account when we come up on renewals. In the short-term, the great majority of our customers are on long enough term contracts but that is not going to be immediately relevant.

Jim Boyle – CL King

Is there any update on the Cumulus RFP for some of the smaller markets new research approach?

Steve Morris

We've heard very little about that recently, Jim. There's no recent update. We are still on some conversations with Cumulus. So I don't really have a prediction on that.

Jim Boyle – CL King

And when will the diaries be shut down in the eight markets you just launched PPM in and put it in the New York Metro One aside?

Steve Morris

The diaries in the L.A., San Francisco, Chicago, Riverside, San Francisco Group, there were diaries through the end of September and in the four markets that are releasing at the end of December, I'm not 100% sure, I do not − some are booked in the last book. There is not a diary in those markets at this time. I'm not sure about that to say that definitively. Jim, I'll just confirm that back for you afterwards.

Jim Boyle – CL King

And finally, are your legal counsel surprised that the Illinois and California Attorney Generals haven't joined the New York and New Jersey Attorney Generals, given the Attorney Generals tend to travel in packs?

Steve Morris

That falls into the speculation category, Jim. I think I will pass on that.

Jim Boyle – CL King

Okay. Thank you.

Operator

There are no further questions in queue. I will now hand the call back to Steve Morris.

Steve Morris

Well, thank you all for your time. Good questions as usual and we will keep you posted on fast-moving events. Thanks everybody.

Operator

That concludes today's third quarter 2008 earnings call. You may now disconnect.

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Source: Arbitron Inc. Q3 2008 Earnings Call Transcript

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