UPDATE, 6:58 AM: CEO Brian Roberts offered this interesting statistic in a conference call with analysts to explain why he’s optimistic about NBCU’s performance in 2012: NBC’s new show Smash had 20% higher ratings in markets with Comcast cable systems than it did elsewhere due to the company’s aggressive cross promotion efforts — which it calls Project Symphony. This was part of Roberts’ larger effort to persuade investors that his investments in NBCU should start to pay off this year. He cited, for example, increased spending on new shows, sports rights including the Olympics, local stations, and theme parks. NBCU chief Steve Burke was a tad less exuberant, saying that “we’re very optimistic, but want to caution people that we’re still in the early innings of the integration process.” He says that NBC “will take us a number of years to turn around.” He added, though, that the company expects to “see some improvement in film. It has not been doing well.” Burke adds that he’s encouraged by the Universal releases coming out later this year, which will include Battleship, Savages, and Les Miserables.
At the cable systems, Roberts noted that the loss of 17,000 video subscribers in Q4 was a big improvement over last year when it lost 135,000. “We may not get back to full growth in video for a while because we don’t see housing growth,” he says. But he hopes to keep Comcast competitive by beefing up its Internet-delivered programming and services. That could result in higher programming outlays in 2012: The company forecasts that its payments could grow in high single digit percentages — in contrast to 5.8% last year — as network carriage renewal deals give Comcast additional VOD rights and opportunities to stream shows to mobile devices. The company also will use the Web to deliver services such as the on-screen program guide that are now handled by set top boxes. Comcast says the initiative — formerly called Xcaliber, now renamed as X1 — will be introduced in hundreds of thousands of homes in several markets in 2012. “It will radically improve the (TV viewing) experience over time,” Roberts says. For example, it will be easier for the company to change the user interface, update programming information, and add services. “We’re very cognizant of the exciting changes in the consumer electronics space. We want to position our company to take advantage of the innovation, not necessarily fight it.” Comcast would not go into detail about plans to collaborate with Verizon saying that government officials haven’t yet approved the recent partnership agreement which includes a $3.6B sale of cable-controlled airwave spectrum to the phone company.
PREVIOUS, 4:13 AM: Important as the earnings are, the main reason Comcast shares are up more than 7% in pre-market trading is that it also just increased its dividend by 44% and announced a plan to repurchase $6.5B in stock — including $3B in 2012. Investors can thank the strong performance of the No. 1 cable operator’s broadband business. Sales there contributed to Q4 net income of $1.29B, up 26.4% vs the same period last year, on revenues of $15B, up 54.7%. The revenue figure beat the $14.9B that analysts expected. And earnings at 47 cents a share were well ahead of the 41 cent consensus forecast. NBCU was the weak link. Revenues at the Broadcast TV operation fell 3.7% to $1.8B, which the company attributes to soft ratings, fewer political ads at the local stations, and a quirk in the calendar that shaved four days off of the quarter in comparison with 2010. Filmed Entertainment revenues of $1.3B were down 1.8%, mostly due to declining home video sales. But Theme Parks were up 4% to $498M with help from Orlando’s “The Wizarding World Of Harry Potter” attraction. And Cable Networks were up 5.3% to $2.2B as fees from pay TV operators increased 10.4% while ad sales were up 2%. NBCU’s operating profit was down 6.8% to $1.1B. But Comcast is still primarily a cable services company, and those results look solid — even though the company ended the year with 22.3M video customers, down 460,000 vs the end of 2010. Traditional cable TV contributed $4.9B in revenues, up 1.3%. Ad sales were down 9.3% to $546M. Still, total cable revenues were up 4.7% to $9.5B, propelled by sales of high speed Internet service (+10.1% to $2.2B) and business services (+36.8% to $498M). CEO Brian Roberts says that Comcast “successfully integrated NBCUniversal” last year and that the company continues to “make progress enhancing the franchise values of its businesses.”