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Comcast Posts Profits Above Expecations, Sending Its Stock Higher

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(Comcast headquarters in center city Philadelphia.  File photo)

(Comcast headquarters in center city Philadelphia. File photo)

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) – Comcast Corp., the nation’s largest cable TV company, on Wednesday posted a fourth-quarter profit that beat analysts’ expectations as more customers signed up for multiple services and the loss of video subscribers slowed.

It also added more broadband Internet and telephone customers than analysts were looking for — surprisingly strong results that caused the share price to climb 72 cents, or 3 percent to $24.88 in morning trading.

“There’s not a single meaningful operating number that it didn’t beat,” Bernstein analyst Craig Moffett said in a research report.

The Philadelphia-based company with operations in 39 states said it lost 135,000 video subscribers in the quarter, fewer than the 206,000 subscriber loss analysts expected and less than the 199,000 it lost a year earlier. It finished the year with 22.8 million subscribers.

There were fewer cancellations by people who signed up mainly for promotional prices in 2009, and more people stuck around thanks to more high-definition channels and expanded programming brought on by the move to digital delivery.

It added 292,000 Internet customers, above the 212,000 expected, and 257,000 phone customers, also better than the 210,000 expected. It ended the year with 17 million Internet subscribers and 8.6 million voice customers.

The company reported net income of $1.02 billion, or 36 cents per share, for the three months ended in December, up from $955 million, or 33 cents, a year ago.

Excluding one-time items, earnings came to 35 cents per share, beating the 32 cents expected by analysts polled by FactSet.

Revenue rose 7 percent to $9.72 billion from $9.07 billion. That also beat the $9.58 billion expected by analysts.

The company recently became the new majority owner of NBC Universal (see related story). Its deal to buy a 51 percent stake in NBC Universal closed in January, so the unit’s results were not reflected in the latest results for Comcast.

Steve Burke, the new CEO of NBC Universal, said the unit’s cable channels, including Bravo and USA, were healthy, and that bolstering the performance of NBC during prime time — an area he called a “real weakness” — would take three to four years.

He declined to say whether NBC would continue to bid on expensive sports programming like the Olympics, where it lost hundreds of millions of dollars, and highlighted that 80 percent of the unit’s profits come from its cable channels, not NBC.

“We’re here to make money, and we’re going to be disciplined,” Burke told analysts on a conference call. “We’re going to concentrate on businesses that have good returns.”

Comcast took a 51 percent stake in NBC Universal last month by paying majority owner General Electric $6.2 billion in cash and contributing its pay TV channels such as “E” Entertainment Television and the Golf Channel, worth $7.25 billion, to the venture. GE is expected to diminish its 49 percent stake to nothing as it is paid out from the venture over seven years.

In its core business, Comcast said more people signed up for a combination of TV signals, high-speed Internet access, and digital voice lines, helping increase the average revenue per video subscriber by 11 percent to $133.43 per month in the fourth quarter, up from $120.66 per month a year earlier.

Comcast said that 33 percent of its customers now sign up for all three services, up from 28 percent a year ago.

The company also said that it would raise its annual dividend by 19 percent to 45 cents per share, and speed up the rate at which it buys back shares. It will now repurchase $2.1 billion worth of shares in 2011, faster than an earlier promise to buy back that many shares by 2012.

For the full year, net income was steady at $3.64 billion, or $1.29 per share, versus $3.64 billion, or $1.26 per share, a year ago when there were slightly more shares outstanding. Annual revenue rose 6 percent to $37.94 billion from $35.76 billion.

(Copyright 2011 by the Associated Press.  All rights reserved.)

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