Sale of Alliance channels possible, says Asper

Canwest Global Communications says it has options to avoid a possible breach of key loan covenants, and shuttering E! is on the list of possibilities.

On Wednesday, Canwest Global Communications said it has options to avoid a possible breach of key loan covenants if the recession continues to erode its TV and newspaper advertising revenues.

They just aren’t easy options, and may include shuttering the loss-making E! network and selling off lucrative specialty channels acquired last year from Alliance Atlantis Communications.

Those possible scenarios came to light Wednesday as Canwest kicked off the earnings season with a first-quarter loss of $33 million on higher revenues, reversing a year-earlier profit of $41 million, as revenue rose 2% to $886 million.

Included in its latest results was a warning that the company ‘may not be able to comply with its existing quarterly total financial leverage ratio covenants in fiscal 2009.’

CFO John McGuire told analysts during a conference call that Canwest has ‘a number of levers that can be pulled’ to ease a credit crunch brought on by a need to service $3.7 billion in accumulated debt. Company execs were not specific on options at hand, however. Canwest CEO Leonard Asper said the sale of AAC channels was possible, though such deals would require an OK from partner Goldman Sachs & Co.

Asked by one analyst whether the company would consider shutting down the struggling E! network, interim president of broadcasting Peter Viner answered: ‘That’s an option we have to think very hard about.’

Canwest has faced persistent speculation from ratings agencies and analysts that it will need to sell off assets like its Australian TV network, possibly at fire sale prices, owing to concerns that servicing its growing debt mountain is fast draining cash. Shares in Canwest fell 29 cents, or 36%, to 51 cents in late afternoon trading on the Toronto Stock Exchange after going as low as 48 cents.

But as Canwest scrambles, broadcasters with less exposure to a slumping ad market – and greater certainty with subscriber revenues from specialty channels – posted better results Wednesday.

Corus Entertainment and Astral Media, which dominate the domestic pay TV market, unveiled impressive first-quarter numbers on Wednesday. Astral saw its profit climb to $42.4 million from a year-earlier $37.5 million, on revenue up 24% to $244.5 million after it bought Standard Radio late last year.

Ian Greenberg, Astral president and CEO, welcomed the first-quarter results as the result of cost containment, especially around radio stations having to fend off an ad slump in the auto, phone and real estate categories.

Corus CEO John Cassaday welcomed his own consistent results in a challenging ad market and economy. Corus saw its first-quarter profit rise slightly to $40.6 million, compared to $39.4 million in 2008, as revenue was up 1% to $216.8 million.

Both companies are expected to be in the running should rival Canadian broadcasters put assets on the auction block.

In other earnings news Wednesday, Cogeco cited strong radio and cable revenue for a first-quarter profit of $11.1 million, compared to a loss of $10 million in 2008, as overall revenue jumped 18.5% to $308.4 million.

From Playback Daily