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Cable Insight from Comcast Earnings

Better subscriber numbers, higher revenue per subscriber, and higher advertising helped Comcast beat Wall Street expectations.

The company grew earnings 12 percent over last year's quarter and revenue 3.8% percent. Cash flow — that key metric of growth in the cable industry — also posted growth — free cash flow up 38.1 percent in the quarter, thanks largely to a 20 percent drop in capital expenditures.

It's clear these numbers show that Comcast is doing a good job competing in this crowded marketplace, but it also says quite a bit about the economy and the media industry.

Good news for media giants — Comcast's ad revenue grew a whopping 24 percent last quarter, its first quarterly ad growth since the first quarter of 2008. And it's a pretty dramatic turnaround from the year-ago quarter. This bodes well for CBS, Disney, News Corp, Discovery and other companies who rely on broadcast and cable ad revenue. (Note: Comcast is hoping to acquire NBC Universal. Both CNBC and NBC Universal are owned by General Electric.)

Roberts also delivered some hidden good news about the value of content.

He said that Comcast's programming costs grew 5 percent this quarter and the company expects programming costs to increase at a higher rate in subsequent quarters.

That's a challenge for Comcast to manage, but it's also a flat-out acknowledgment that the media giants will be able to squeeze out higher payments for their channels. This means higher payments not just for cable channels, but also broadcast networks, which have just recently started securing direct compensation for carriage by cable companies. (Some high-stakes high profile battles — most recently between ABC and Time Warner Cable ahead of the Oscars — indicates that cable companies will pay more to keep popular programming on the air.

There's also some positive news about the consumer — people are still willing to pay for entertainment.

More and more people are paying for a bundle of Comcast packages.

Instead of cutting, cable and internet services provide a great value in this time: 29 percent of Comcast subscribers use all three of its services (voice, Internet and video) up from just 25 percent a year ago. And the average Comcast customer is paying 6 percent more per month. On the earnings call Roberts discussed the increase in pay-per-view revenue, which comes from an increase in digital set top boxes. The message: give people set top boxes and they *will* pay for video-on-demand.

Check out CEO Brian Roberts' interview on Squawk Box this morning. He gave a good explanation of why free cash flow is such a key metric to the cable industry, and why losing 82,000 video customers in the quarter, is surprisingly good.

Questions? Comments? MediaMoney@cnbc.com

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  • Working from Los Angeles, Boorstin is CNBC's media and entertainment reporter and editor of CNBC.com's Media Money section.