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Astral's '03 strongest ever

MONTREAL - Astral Media Inc. reported its best-ever financial results yesterday, for the year ended August 31, 2003.

The year saw healthy growth in revenues, EBITDA, earnings and cash flow from continuing operations as its television and radio sides contributed strongly. Astral owns television properties such as The Movie Network, Viewer's Choice Canada, Super Écran, Canal Indigo and Family Channel as well as 24 radio stations in Quebec and Atlantic Canada.

Net earnings from continuing operations for the twelve months of fiscal 2003 increased 42% over last year, to $71.3 million. Net earnings from continuing operations increased in the fourth quarter of fiscal 2003 by 22% to $19.7 million. Consolidated revenues totaled $475.7 million for the 2003 fiscal year, an increase of 23% over 2002, and revenues of $125.2 million for Q4 were up 27% compared to the same quarter last year.

EBITDA for the year increased 37% to $130.1 million and was up 26% to $36.5 million in the fourth quarter.

"This increase reflects the strong overall performance of Astral's television, radio and outdoor groups over the course of fiscal 2003," says the press release. Cash flow from continuing operations rose 41% year-over-year totaling $87.9 million compared to $62.3 million for the same period last year. For the fourth quarter, cash flow from continuing operations was up 49% to $23.8 million.

"Astral recorded a superb year in Fiscal 2003, one that not only surpassed high expectations, but continues an extended period of growth in long-term value for our shareholders," said Ian Greenberg, president and CEO in the release.

"We delivered on our promises of last year, and we are proud of our record financial results and of the strong performance of our business units. It was an exceptional year for our Radio and Television groups, and a strong year for outdoor, which performed well despite a challenging year," added Greenberg. "The Radio group's results for the year, including the contribution of the stations acquired from Telemedia for 10 months, showed an increase of 130% in revenues and a 198% increase in EBITDA. Our television group also showed remarkable growth, with subscriber revenue growth of 8% and advertising revenue increases of 33% for the year."

Debt-free and with ready cash at hand, Astral is "looking for acquisitions that fit our three core businesses", said Greenberg in his conference call with financial analysts and media yesterday. He said the company is looking to get something done in the next 12 to 18 months, but has no leads as yet. "An acquisition may not be available today, and there is none today," he said.

And, if no opportunities present themselves, Greenberg said the board would then look at the company's dividend policy and perhaps distribute the money to shareholders.

Other growth avenues such as subscription video on demand, which has been so successful in the States with HBO On Demand, is still under discussion. Greenberg admitted he had hoped to have an SVOD trial in place by now. "It's probably a little later than we thought," he said, adding some trials should begin to happen in Quebec and Ontario in early 2004.

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