Comcast Added TV Customers Last Quarter After Six-Year Slump

Comcast Corp., the largest U.S. cable company, added pay-TV customers in the fourth quarter, marking the first gain in more than six years.

Comcast’s total video customers “modestly grew” in the period, Chief Executive Officer Brian Roberts said today at a Citigroup Inc. investment conference in Las Vegas, though he didn’t specify by how many. The remarks sent the shares up 3.5 percent to $52.83 at the close in New York.

Comcast had been shedding video subscribers for more than half a decade, hurt by competition from satellite-TV providers and newer fiber-optic services from phone companies. It lost 348,000 customers in the first three quarters of last year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Roberts, 54, has been developing new technology to help Comcast entice viewers in the pay-TV market and ward off Internet-based upstarts. The company also is aiming to sign up more customers for broadband Internet, a market that he says is only about 30 percent penetrated.

“We are a fundamentally different company today,” Roberts said at the event. “We are a technology company, a media company, an innovation company -- not just a cable company.”

Comcast’s new X1 interface will let viewers change the channel with their voice using a remote control, Roberts said. It also will allow customers to see what shows are popular on social networks such as Twitter and store programs online via cloud computing, he said. The interface will work with Apple Inc., Android and Inc. devices, Roberts said, letting customers watch programming on whatever platform they choose.

Cable Mergers?

Comcast, based in Philadelphia, is trying to maintain its edge in the cable-TV market at a time of looming consolidation. Charter Communications Inc., backed by billionaire backer John Malone, is preparing a takeover offer of about $135 a share for Time Warner Cable Inc., according to a person familiar with the matter. That would combine the fourth-largest cable provider, Charter, with the second-biggest, Time Warner Cable.

Malone’s holding company, Liberty Media Corp., announced plans last week to acquire full control of Sirius XM Holdings Inc. -- a deal that would give Liberty access to more cash for a potential Time Warner Cable transaction.

Even as it lost pay-TV customers in recent years, Comcast has used higher prices and broadband revenue to maintain earnings growth. That’s helped keep its stock on a four-year growth run, including a 39 percent gain in 2013.

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