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Comcast Throws Shareholders a Bone

Updated from 11:49 a.m. EST

Comcast (CMCSA - Get Report) is trying to curry favor with investors as it faces another challenging year.

The Philadelphia cable giant on Thursday lowered its lavish executive pay scheme, introduced a 25-cent annual dividend, reiterated its $6.9 billion share-buyback plan and promised to keep capital spending in check.

The gestures come after Comcast shares fell more than 30% last year. The plunge incited at least one large holder -- Glenn Greenberg of Chieftain Capital Management -- to call for CEO Brian Roberts to step down.

Perhaps sensing the need to be more responsive to investors critical of the Roberts family's control over the company, Comcast founder Ralph Roberts volunteered to cut his salary to a dollar from the $1.85 million he made last year. The elder Roberts, who serves as a board director, also gave up future bonuses and stock options.

While shareholders welcomed the moves with a nice 7% jump in the stock, the outlook for 2008 suggests another rough year ahead as competition heats up and the economy cools.

Comcast said it expects sales to grow between 8% and 10% this year, a pace that is slightly slower than the 11% Wall Street was planning on, and a big slowdown from the 24% growth last year.

On a conference call Thursday, company executives said that the heavy spending on TV set-top boxes and network expansion will continue this year, with an eye toward pulling in more subscribers and selling new services to existing customers.

The company is confident that the investment returns "are very attractive," executives said on the call.

Investors have grown uneasy watching cable companies like Comcast and Time Warner Cable (TWC - Get Report) lose customers in a high-definition video rivalry with satellite-TV players EchoStar (DISH - Get Report) and DirecTV (DTV - Get Report). The competition has cut into growth and forced the cable companies to spend more to expand the HD capabilities.

DirecTV posted strong fourth-quarter subscriber gains Wednesday.

In an effort to hang on to customers, Comcast says it will double its HD channels to as much as 60 this year, and push advertising that highlights the effort.

Comcast spent $6 billion on so-called capex last year, which represented 20% of total revenue. Looking at the spending plan for 2008, Comcast says it will lay out about $6.06 billion, or 18% of its sales, on capital expenditures.

The company expects capex to decline as a percentage of revenue for the next few years, according to executives on the call.

For the fourth quarter, Comcast posted adjusted earnings of $602 million, or 20 cents a share. That represented a 14% improvement over the year-earlier profits of $459 million, or 15 cents a share. Analysts were looking for a profit of 17 cents a share.

Sales in the quarter were $8 billion, a 14% jump from the $7 billion a year ago. For 2007, total sales grew 24% to $30.9 billion from the $25 billion level in 2006.

Shares of Comcast recently were up $1.24 to $19.05.

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CMCSA $56.78 0.00%
DISH $59.62 0.00%
TWC $187.43 0.00%
AAPL $113.29 0.00%

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