Comcast Corp reported higher-than-expected quarterly earnings as it benefited from surging ad sales and signed up customers to higher-priced packages of cable, voice and broadband service.
Comcast's subscriber growth was also ahead of most expectations in a quarter when the company plowed resources into finishing its deal to acquired control of NBC Universal. The deal closed in late January, adding a broadcast network, cable networks like MSNBC and USA, theme parks and a movie studio to Comcast's lineup.
Comcast, the largest U.S. cable company, also increased its annual dividend by 19 percent and accelerated a $2.1 billion stock repurchase program. That combination, along with the bullish quarterly earnings, lifted shares of the company by 3.3 percent in early trade.
I was impressed both in terms of customer numbers and the financials, said Thomas Eagan, an analyst with Collins Stewart. Oftentimes a company can beat estimates on customers but not financials because they will give the services away. That wasn't the case here.
Earnings for the quarter rose to $1.02 billion, or 36 cents a share, from $955 million, or 33 cents a share, in the period a year ago. Excluding one-time items, Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S estimates that Comcast earned 34 cents a share, ahead of the 32 cents a share analysts had expected.
Comcast's fourth-quarter revenue also surpassed expectations, rising 7 percent to $9.7 billion, it said on Wednesday.
The stronger quarterly results came partly thanks to a surge in advertising at its cable networks, which include The Golf Channel, E! and Versus. Sharply higher ad sales were widely expected after results from media companies Time Warner Inc and News Corp in recent weeks showed that the ad market recovery is in full swing.
But the results also reflect Comcast's concentration on upgrading customers to more expensive combinations of services, such as broadband and cable. Average revenue it earned for each video customer rose by 10.6 percent in the quarter.
That helped soften the blow of losing 135,000 basic video customers, those who pay for only the least expensive cable service.
A tough economy plus intense competition from satellite and telecommunication company rivals, such as DirecTV or AT&T Inc , have been largely to blame for the steady basic cable customer losses.
Still, this quarter's loss of basic video customers is far less than the 199,000 from a year before, suggesting the lower end of the cable business may be stabilizing.
It also suggests that worries may be overblown -- at least for now -- that customers are canceling basic cable and instead watching TV over the Internet, something known as cord cutting or over-the-top viewing.
I would say one of the standout numbers was basic video losses, said Collins Stewart's Eagan. It kind of tells you that the over-the-top phenomenon wasn't as great as people feared.
More affluent customers, meanwhile, kept adding high-end services to their subscriptions. In the quarter, Comcast added 292,000 high-speed Internet customers, up 18 percent from a year before, and 257,000 voice customers, up about 6 percent.
Those figures were well ahead of what most analysts expected.
Comcast's shares were up 79 cents at $24.95 in premarket trading.
(Reporting by Paul Thomasch, editing by Dave Zimmerman and Derek Caney)