Comcast Corp. reported a 22 percent increase in third-quarter earnings, buoyed by an investment gain and lower tax rate as it stepped up promotions on its bundled video, phone and Internet plans.
The nation's largest cable TV operator also surpassed AT&T Inc. in the quarter as the country's largest Internet service provider.
But investors were more anxious to find out how the purchase of a 51 percent stake in NBC Universal would burden Comcast's finances. A deal between Comcast and General Electric Co., which owns 80 percent of NBC Universal, could be announced soon. Comcast is expected to pony up cash and its cable networks and help shoulder NBC Universal's debt in a $30 billion deal that would transform Comcast into one of the world's most powerful media companies.
Comcast CEO Brian Roberts tried to quell concerns that the company would overpay for an investment without acknowledging that talks were going on.
"I would like to emphasize that we will continue to have a very disciplined approach as we evaluate any of these opportunities, with our primary focus to create meaningful value for our shareholders," he said during a conference call with analysts.
Roberts said he will only consider investments that can accelerate growth, increase profits and give a competitive edge to its existing businesses.
Comcast also said it will keep paying a dividend and buying back shares, a nod to investor worries that an NBC Universal stake means a diminished return on their investment.
In the third quarter, Comcast earned $944 million, or 33 cents per share, compared with $771 million, or 26 cents, in the same quarter a year earlier. Analysts were expecting earnings of 25 cents per share, according to Thomson Reuters.
Revenue was up 3 percent to $8.8 billion, slightly shy of the $8.85 billion analysts were forecasting.
Free cash flow, an important measure of liquidity for the typically debt-laden cable TV industry, was up 20 percent to $1.1 billion.
"They continue to execute in a weak economy with strong competition from the telephone companies," said Rick Franklin, senior analyst at Edward Jones.
Comcast, which is based in Philadelphia, said it marketed its bundles of Internet, TV and phone services more aggressively in the quarter and added 1.1 million lines of service, slightly below its total in the same period last year. Lines of service encompass all orders of Internet, cable TV and phone services; a household can have multiple lines of service.
Video customers paid, on average, $66.84 a month — up 3 percent from last year. Total average revenue per subscriber for video, phone and Internet was $117, up 5.6 percent.
Comcast's video revenue rose slightly to $4.78 billion. Phone revenue rose 20 percent to $829 million while Internet revenue increased by 6 percent to $1.93 billion.
Comcast added 361,000 new Internet customers to end the quarter with 15.7 million. That's higher than AT&T's 15.6 million broadband subscribers, excluding wireless laptop card users.