Comcast Earnings: Recession Resistance

Despite the pullback in consumer spending and steeper than ever competition, Comcast on Wednesday reported remarkable growth in its third quarter.

The largest U.S. cable company showed a 38 percent increase in third quarter profit, and an important indicator of its resilience: 7 percent increase in revenues and cash flow. Bottom line: Comcast, and the cable TV industry as a whole, looks well positioned to weather this downturn.

"Video and broadband are no more discretionary for most families than running water and electricity," wrote Craig Moffett, Sanford Bernstein's cable analyst in his latest report.

The fact that many customers have signed up for Comcast's "triple play" of cable, internet access and phone may mean they'll hesistate before dropping any one of these services — because they're getting a deal on all three.

Comcast isn't impervious to the economic downturn, of course: its advertising dropped 10 percent to $374 million. And on the post-earnings conference call, Comcast execs said that in this economy, consumers are less likely to pay for premium services or sign up for a new digital phone service, instead sticking with their cell phones.

Thanks to this new pressure, the company added 483,000 phone customers during the quarter, lower than some analysts had forecast and down from 681,000 in the year-ago quarter. When it comes to the video part of Comcast's triple play, it's facing new competition from Verizon's Fios and AT&T's U-verse, the latter of which is proving a bigger challenge with recent expansion. Thanks in part to this new competition, Comcast lost 147,000 basic video subscribers, widening the loss of 56,000 a year ago.

Now the company is pushing to gain more market share in broadband services, offering a range of options, including a super fast service for Web addicts and a slower, cheaper service for consumers watching their wallets.

And to help preserve its free cash flow, the company will be more restrained about buying back shares, and won't use all of the remaining $4.1 billion in funds approved to buy back shares by the end of 2009.

The end of analog TV and the transition to fully digital TV broadcasting provides an opportunity for Comcast. Trying to lure those still living in an analog world for the final few months, Comcast is offering basic cable for $10 a year, or a free year if you buy another Comcast service for a monthly $24.95 payment.

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