Liberty Sees TV Ad Market Freeing Up

Although it was bruised along with other TV station owners in a light political advertising year, Liberty Corp. said Tuesday that the ad marketplace was clearing a lot sooner than expected.

The Greenville, S.C.-based company owns 15 TV stations in the South and Midwest, including eight NBC affiliates, five ABC affiliates, and two CBS affiliates. Liberty's overall revenues dropped 10 percent, from $61.8 million in the fourth quarter of 2002 compared to $55.6 million a year later. Station revenues fell 11 percent, to $51.1 million in the fourth quarter of 2003 compared to $57.1 million in the fourth quarter of 2002. Another revenue component, which includes results from its cable advertising sales group, also slumped: That line dropped 4 percent in the quarter, from $4.6 million in 2002 to $4.4 million in 2003. Its cable advertising sales group, CableVantage Inc., serves almost 500,000 subscribers in eight cable companies. Liberty Corp. is not to be confused with Liberty Media, which owns the Discovery Channel and recently acquired a 9 percent voting interest in News Corp.



Liberty Corp. attributed most of the decline to $10 million less in political advertising during the fourth quarter of 2003 compared to the year before. It said that local and national advertising, excluding political, grew 6 percent in the quarter--and that was good news.

"We did very, very well in the fourth quarter," said James M. Keelor, president and chief executive officer. That included several key categories: auto, which was up 16 percent; retail, up 8.8 percent; financials, up 21 percent; health care, up 31 percent; and telecom, up 16.5 percent. Even politicals, which overall weren't anywhere near previous levels, were strong in Mississippi and Louisiana, where gubernatorial races boosted Liberty's stations there.

Keelor said much of the activity continued as the calendar shifted from 2003 to 2004, although Liberty is still totaling January's results. Political spending is expected to be strong, particularly up to yesterday's primary in South Carolina, where Liberty owns the top-rated station in Columbia. Local automotive ads continue to come in, although some of Liberty's markets are seeing a few cancellations.

"We see nothing to suggest that auto is going to soften significantly in the first quarter," Keelor said.

He declined to release information on pacings. Liberty is one of the few broadcast TV companies that does not provide forward-looking data.

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