UPDATED at 7:30AM PT with analysis and executive comment. The Comcast machinery kept pumping out profit in the fourth quarter, with total revenue up 4% to $21.9B and NBCUniversal showing gains in both the cable and broadcast TV.
Total revenue gained 4.2% to $21.9B. Adjusted earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization was flat with the year-earlier period at $6.8B. On a per-share basis, adjusted earnings gained 9% to 49 cents, beating Wall Street forecasts.
While Comcast has factored significantly into media M&A talks, pursuing 21st Century Fox assets that ended up with Disney last December, chairman and CEO Brian Roberts emphasized, “There’s nothing we feel we have to acquire.” Speaking on a conference call with Wall Street analysts about the quarterly results, he said of the bar for dealmaking, “We set it high. Look at our track record — we’ve created value for shareholders.”
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NBCU revenue for the quarter ending Dec. 31 ticked up 3.9% to $8.8B, though the film unit had fewer releases than a year ago, so revenue declined 5%. Adjusted earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization increased 6.4% to $1.88B.
Comcast added 350,000 high-speed internet customers in the quarter, while shedding 33,000 video customers.
The company reported a one-time gain of $12.7B in the period due to a reduction in tax liabilities as a result of the new federal tax law enacted in December.
Despite having a soft fourth quarter, Universal Pictures had a record year of profit in 2017. Steve Burke, CEO of NBCU, offered an update of the integration of DreamWorks Animation, which was acquired by Comcast in 2016.
“We have completely retooled the flow of releases” on the animation side, Burke said. “We’re very happy with the progress we have made at DreamWorks. While 2018 will be a lull after Boss Baby and Captain Underpants in 2017, plans call for two films a year from DWA and another two from Illumination starting in 2019.
Gains in animation help fuel the consumer products business and theme parks, Burke noted — both key areas of focus for the company.
On the TV side, results from the cable network portfolio and the NBC broadcast network continued to be strong.
Powered by retransmission, distribution and other revenue soared 44.7% in the broadcast unit, while cable saw a 34.5% increase in content licensing.
Advertising inched up 2.3% in cable, reflecting higher rates, which overcame ratings declines and the shuttering of channels such as Esquire, Cloo and Chiller in recent months. Broadcast advertising fell 6.5%, with higher rates offset by softer ratings and the absence of political advertising at local stations for most of the quarter.
Burke continued to bang the drum for NBC’s upcoming Super Bowl and Winter Olympics telecasts, which the company predicts will reap $1.4B in ad revenue. “Television advertising is holding its own,” he said. While the “dream” of NBCU is to “take our TV advertising and make it more targetable, more addressable and digital,” the legacy TV ad space is still a power center for the company.
The ad market “feels like it might be getting a little stronger now,” Burke said. Rather than the positive effect of tax cuts, he chalked up the bullish sentiment to “overall business sentiment. As we look forward to the upfront, by all accounts, it’s going to be a strong upfront.”
Along with laying out quarterly and annual results, Comcast announced a 21% increase in its dividend, the 10th straight year of gains. The company also said it will buy back $5B of its stock in the year ahead. Comcast shares have been up a fraction thus far, trading at a 52-week high of about $42.75.
Asked by one analyst about whether growth at NBCUniversal has been tapped out during the seven years it has been part of Comcast, Burke said there are still undervalued assets such as Telemundo, MSNBC and theme parks. At the time of the acquisition, operating cash flow was $3.5B a year, he noted, compared with $8.2B today.
“Trees don’t grow to the sky,” Burke said, “but we still have a lot of opportunity.”
Roberts was asked about net neutrality, a hot topic since the FCC voted in December to roll back those regulations. AT&T has proposed an “internet bill of rights” enacted by Congress and Roberts expressed similar sentiment.
“We hope Congress will enact some enduring protections that won’t change with administrations,” he said. “We look forward to putting this conversation behind us for everyone’s sake.”
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