Vodafone’s financial metrics appear to be slowly ticking up and it is making some progress in narrowing its performance gap to peers. Signs that it may be moving away from a discount-led convergence strategy in Germany are very positive.

Organic EBITDA growth is highly flattered by one-off items and, as is frequently the case, even this headline EBITDA growth for FY20 is wiped out by currency depreciation in ‘Rest of World’ countries.

This lack of real progress on EBITDA and FCF and the muted outlook for both exacerbates Vodafone’s tight leverage position. There seems very little prospect of it unsettling the O2/Virgin Media JV in the UK.
 

Sky posted understandably weak results for Q1, amid the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. Revenue fell by 3.7% year-on-year, with most sports subscriptions on pause and advertising markets in shock.

The company has guided to a 60% fall in EBITDA over the next two quarters, as it bears the extra costs of a very condensed sporting schedule, but much will depend on what level of rebate it negotiates from the rightsowners for the disruption.

On screen, Sky faces similar production issues to other broadcasters, but it has continued to enhance its platform gatekeeper role and strong content offering, most recently by integrating Disney+.

BT’s March quarter appeared to have been going reasonably well until COVID-19 hit, with full year guidance still being broadly met, but the new financial year will be hit harder, with BT Sport, SME and new fibre connection revenue particularly vulnerable.

BT’s full fibre roll-out has been temporarily slowed by COVID-19, but it is accelerating its ambitions regardless increasing both its 12-month (4.0m to 4.5m) and longer term (15m to 20m) coverage targets.

BT is suspending and then rebasing its dividend, in part to cover the above costs. While we regard BT’s fibre investment as a good one, investors and analysts alike have been frustrated by a lack of clear multi-year guidance of the benefits, perhaps as a result of BT not wanting to reveal its negotiating hand to the regulator, government and retail partners.

Journalism is on the precipice with more than £1 billion likely to fall off the industry’s topline. Several years of projected structural revenue decline in advertising and circulation have occurred in just the past few weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, with no letup in sight.

The UK’s rich heritage of independent journalism is at risk, with responses by Government and ‘big tech’ multinationals welcomed but ultimately inadequate. We make two further recommendations for engagement in this report.

Journalism enterprises from the small, local and specialist outfits through to national household brands will either fail or remain on a path to future failure.

O2’s merger with Virgin Media seems more of a marriage of convenience than a determined pursuit of synergy benefits. With the owners effectively selling their stakes, the combination will be well-advised to exercise caution in any convergence strategy that they pursue.

O2’s results this quarter appear to be fairly decent with all metrics ticking up slightly, although caution is advised in interpretation and pressure on ARPU has not eased.

With the mobile sector reasonably well insulated from COVID-19 and O2 likely to fare better than most in out-of-contract discounts, the short-term outlook is relatively robust, but competitive and macroeconomic vulnerabilities remain on the horizon.

Consumer demand for games and consoles has surged during lockdown. Sales are on track for the best year ever, while games production has been resilient, with studios and platforms adapting quickly to distancing and working from home

New consoles will still launch in 2020, but Sony and Microsoft will need to replace tradition with creativity and smarts for this launch cycle

Hollywood’s home entertainment offer is crucially missing games. It’s not too late for Disney to change course, and Warner Bros. to move quickly

Amazon reported $75bn in net sales, which was largely in line with expectations, and 28% growth in Prime subscription revenue—as Amazon now has more than 150 million Prime subscribers worldwide—cementing its place as the irreplaceable utility for many in lockdown

However, Q1 results only covered a few weeks of lockdown. Amazon expects low profitability in Q2 as lockdown persists in its main markets, with customer expenditure focused on a narrow basket of essentials as people face pressures from unemployment and business closures

Amazon’s warehouses are a key vulnerability in the time of COVID-19. Jeff Bezos pledged $4bn to keep workers safe and warehouses in function, though whether this is enough to placate government’s and workers’ concerns is yet to be seen

ITV TV advertising was down 42% in April, better than expected—but there was no Q2 guidance. We believe ITV has outperformed the market, aided by large audiences, with 22 programmes with viewing above seven million, double the number over the same period in 2019

The TV production stoppage hits ITV in two ways—leaving gaping holes in the schedule and cutting ITV Studios revenues. ITV Studios revenue was down 11% in Q1 (£342 million), with no guidance given for Q2 when the production shutdown will really come into effect and likely devastate previously expected revenues. ITV note that demand for library content is up, however, although much higher margin, this will only go a small way to offset lost production revenue

The Love Island cancellation is a major blow, with the benefits that the format brings ITV—youthful, simultaneous, easily-monetisable, cross-platform engagement for six nights a week for over two months, akin to a major sports tournament that ITV owns—lost. But BritBox use and subscriptions are both up

The UK lockdown since mid-March has boosted TV time to levels not seen since 2014, with broadcast TV and online video each growing by nearly 40 minutes/person/day.

While trends vary significantly by demographic, news consumption has been a common catalyst for linear TV’s growth, benefitting the BBC above all. Although Sky News has also flourished, Sky’s portfolio has been seriously impacted by the lack of live sport.

2019 extended many of the long-running trends of the last decade, but, notably, online video’s growth rate appeared to slow among youngsters, in contrast to older demographics. 35-54-year-olds watching more VOD will have significant implications for linear broadcasters down the line.

The press has reported on an imminent merger of O2 and Virgin Media (UK). This is not likely to be driven by the pursuit of revenue synergies as dis-synergies are more likely if the brands are merged.

Cost synergies are real, albeit a bit tangential. However, in a mature market even modest synergies are worth pursuing.

A full regulatory review may be required but approval is likely. Market impact is somewhat nuanced, with the benefit of a distracted competitor short-term and a larger but still rational operator ultimately.