Comcast Believes Video Subscribers Will Return

Lost 17,000 Video Subscribers in Fourth Quarter, Fewest in Five Years

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Comcast may be debunking some of the cord-cutting hype .

The cable giant said it lost just 17,000 video subscribers in the fourth quarter, the fewest number in five years. Comcast lost about eight times as many customers in the year-earlier period. It averaged about 175,000 customer defections in each of the previous 10 quarters, according to Morningstar analyst Michael Hodel.

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts said today that he believed video-subscriber growth will also return eventually.

"We may not get back to full growth on video for a while, because we don't see housing growth at the moment, but someday that 's going to happen," Mr. Roberts told analysts on a conference call.

Cable companies have been watching video-subscriber rolls for signs of subscribers' dropping out in favor of streaming substitutes from the likes of Netflix and Hulu, and have so far concluded that their real challenges are slow housing starts and competition from satellite and phone companies. But slowing the losses, whatever their cause, remains important.

"The psychological importance of video-subscriber strength, not just for cable but indeed for the whole pay-TV sector, cannot be overstated," said Craig Moffett, analyst at Bernstein Research, in a note today. "The fear of cord-cutting is fading, and with it ... the core bear argument."

Rather than crediting any economic uptick, Comcast cites its recent product launches, success of Xfinity and its customer service for the slowdown in customer defections.

Comcast also added 336,000 broadband and 460,000 voice customers in the fourth quarter, ending the year with 22 .3 million video and 18.1 million broadband subscribers.

Comcast's fourth-quarter earnings were up 26% from the year-earlier period, to $1.29 billion, or 47 cents a share. Revenue surged 55%, to $15.04 billion. Wall Street had forecast per-share profit of 41 cents on revenue of $14.94 billion.

But, as in the rest of the industry, fourth-quarter advertising was weak at Comcast, declining 2.1% at cable networks and 6.5% at broadcast. While its cable ad revenue was in line with the rest of the space, the company's broadcast segment was notably worse than those of its peers'.

The underperformance was predominantly due to weakness at NBC Universal, which Comcast bought last year. In its conference call, Comcast said it is rebuilding the network with "The Voice" but that fulfilling the channel's potential will be a "multiyear effort."

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