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EARNINGS PREVIEW: US Media Firms' TV Units Show Their Worth

By Drew FitzGerald Of DOW JONES NEWSWIRES TAKING THE PULSE: Wall Street forecasts stronger results from most U.S. media companies after higher ad sales and some bruising fights over cable-licensing rights delivered more revenue in the fourth quarter. The networks are also spending more themselves, with Fox, CBS and NBC agreeing to pay 65% more to broadcast National Football League games over the next nine years, according to The Wall Street Journal. Content providers have worked hard to protect their margins through online distribution deals and "TV Everywhere" options that give consumers access to films and series at the same cable-TV prices. Such agreements are needed to help offset a second year of declining box-office receipts. COMPANIES TO WATCH: Viacom Inc. (VIA, VIAB) - Feb. 2 Wall Street Expectations: Analysts see a $1.06-per-share profit and $3.99 billion in revenue. A year earlier, Viacom reported a $1-per-share profit with $3.83 billion in revenue. Key Issues: Viacom's core results are expected to continue their growth streak as rising ad revenue and improving ratings at MTV networks boost the top line. The media giant's Paramount movie studio also raked in more than $500 million from the latest "Mission: Impossible" blockbuster, but the lion's share of box-office sales fell in the current quarter, while most of the movie's promotional costs weighed on the company's upcoming results. Walt Disney Co. (DIS) - Feb. 7 Wall Street Expectations: The Street projects a 71-cent-per-share profit with $11.19 billion in revenue. A year earlier, Disney reported a 68-cent-per-share profit and $10.72 billion in revenue. Key Issues: Disney's namesake studio faces an uphill battle trying to beat its year-earlier results, but sales of consumer merchandise like its Marvel comics products will offset some of that shortfall, according to a note from Needham & Co. Sports heavyweight ESPN will continue to power Disney's cable business. The company's theme parks have delivered better-than-expected revenue in recent quarters, defying skeptics who warned that weak U.S. job growth would cut down on visits. News Corp. (NWS, NWSA) - Feb. 8 Wall Street Expectations: Analysts polled by Thomson Reuters project a profit of 34 cents a share with $8.93 billion in revenue. A year earlier, the company earned 24 cents a share, or 29 cents excluding restructuring costs and other charges, with $8.76 billion in revenue. Key Issues: News Corp. punctuated a year of hotly contested cable-licensing battles across the media industry by reaching a detente with satellite provider DirecTV Group Inc. (DTV). The company also has negotiated higher retransmission fees with U.S. broadcast stations, which should drive stronger revenue. News Corp. owns Dow Jones & Co., the publisher of this newswire. Time Warner Inc. (TWX) - Feb. 8 Wall Street Expectations: Analysts call for 87 cents in earnings and revenue of $8.09 billion. The company's year-earlier profit was 68 cents a share, or 67 cents excluding items like investment gains and prior-year write-downs, on $7.81 billion in revenue. Key Issues: Time Warner has spent the past year working to expand the reach of HBO Go, the online version of its pay-TV service, an effort that should help protect its margins by broadening the channel's appeal at little extra cost. The company's film business should benefit from strong home-video sales from the end of the "Harry Potter" franchise and the latest iteration of "The Hangover." CBS Corp. (CBS, CBSA) - Feb. 15 Wall Street Expectations: Analysts are projecting a per-share profit of 53 cents with $3.91 billion in revenue. A year earlier, the company reported a 41-cent-per-share profit, or 46 cents excluding restructuring and debt-extinguishment charges, on $3.9 billion in revenue. Key Issues: CBS has notched modest revenue improvements for most of the past year as syndication deals for older shows like "Cheers" complement healthy ad sales from its existing primetime lineup. A growing international audience has proven especially profitable. At the same time, the company's fourth-quarter results will face tough comparisons after it reported an even more lucrative syndication deal for "CSI" a year before. (The Thomson Reuters estimate and year-ago figures may not be comparable due to one-time items and other adjustments.) -By Drew FitzGerald, Dow Jones Newswires; 212-416-2909; andrew.fitzgerald@dowjones.com

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