While most cable TV operators, and both satellite TV providers, are grappling with accelerating subscriber losses, Comcast continues to add customers to its video service thanks to X1, arguably the most advanced set-top box on the market. The device, which allows the viewer to more easily search for shows and movies, has been adopted by more than 50% of subscriber households, the first time a majority of Comcast's customers are using the X1.
By year's end, Comcast expects the X1 to have been installed in 60% of its users' homes, Finance Chief Michael J. Cavanagh said on an investor conference call Thursday.
As a result, Comcast said it added 42,000 video subscribers in the first quarter. The additions defy the industry trend of cable TV operators losing subscribers.
Comcast has added video customers in five of the past six quarters, including 80,000 new cable TV subscribers in the fourth quarter last year. Across the industry, meanwhile, pay TV operators lost around 1.9 million subscribers in 2016, industry group SNL Kagan said earlier this month, the largest decline in one year in the industry's history.
Shares of Comcast were up 2.1% on Thursday morning to $39.59, extending its 2017 advance to 14.7%.
Yet it was particularly strong revenue at NBCUniversal, its sprawling TV and film group, that fueled earnings of 53 cents a share in the first quarter, beating a projected 44 cents, the average estimate of 26 analysts surveyed by Bloomberg.
NBCUniversal posted a 24% jump in profit, excluding some expenses, as sales grew 15% to $7.9 billion. Universal Pictures benefited from Fifty Shades Darker, Get Out and Sing while revenue at the company's cable TV networks jumped 7.6% to $2.6 billion on the back of higher so-called affiliate fees from cable TV providers as well as content licensing deals with Netflix (NFLX) - Get Netflix, Inc. (NFLX) Report , Hulu and Amazon (AMZN) - Get Amazon.com, Inc. Report , Cavanagh added.
Profit was curbed somewhat by higher programming and production costs as well as a small decline in advertising sales, Cavanagh said. "There might be quarters where ad sales go backwards but affiliate fees go up, and then you can still have revenue growth," he added.
NBC remains the top-ranked network in prime-time for the fourth consecutive season in addition to having the next Super Bowl and winter Olympics. Its Spanish-language Telemundo network, which competes most directly with Univision Communications, also holds the rights to the 2018 World Cup. Every division of NBCUniversal beat forecasts except broadcast TV, Wells Fargo media analyst Marci Ryvicker said. Revenue from Universal's theme parks business increased 6% to $397 million.
All in all, the country's largest cable TV operator posted net income of $2.6 billion, a staggering 20% increase from a year ago, easily surpassing an average forecast of $2.1 billion. Sales for the quarter jumped 8.9% to $20.5 billion, slightly edging Wall Street's forecast of $20.1 billion, according to 24 analysts surveyed by Bloomberg. Operating cash flow grew 10% to $7 billion.
The relative stability of Comcast's cable TV business has allowed the company to continue to increase its broadband subscribers. Comcast added 429,000 new broadband customers in the quarter after signing 438,000 during the first quarter of 2016.
Later this spring Comcast plans to launch a wireless service, Xfinity Mobile, which will only be available to its internet and cable TV customers, i.e., those already in its current service territory. The strategy behind Comcast's mobile offering is the company's historic focus on selling more services to current users in regional territories that include Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia rather than attempting to go nationwide.
New services to existing customers, such as home security, which runs off Comcast's Wi-Fi, grew by 10% in the quarter, Comcast said in its earnings statement. Some 70% of Comcast's customers subscribe to at least two services, Cavanagh.
"We think we have a lot of opportunity just in our footprint," Comcast Chairman Brian Roberts said on the conference call. "We just haven't found a business model that works outside, though we'll keep evaluating, keep looking at it, but our success is in our footprint, packaging, bundling, so we'll continue to drive that internally within our footprint."
Comcast is betting that it can convince existing users of the X1 set-top box to switch their wireless service to Xfinity Mobile by offering free data packages that offer endless streaming of their favorite shows and live events. Comcast offers a multichannel internet streaming service that competes within its home market with similar new platforms from AT&T's (T) - Get AT&T Inc. Report DirecTV Now and Dish Network's (DISH) - Get DISH Network Corporation Class A Report Sling TV.
Some reports have said Comcast will seek to offer that service nationwide, but so far the company said it it focused only on its existing service area. The mobile service, which will be priced below those of the country's largest wireless operators, will rely on a previously existing agreement to use Verizon Communications' (VZ) - Get Verizon Communications Inc. Report network along with Comcast's millions of Wi-Fi hotspots.
On the subject of a possible strike by the Writer's Guild, which represents writers for thousands of television and film productions, Comcast's Steve Burke, CEO of NBCUniversal, said he was confident that an agreement would be reached before a May 1 deadline, when the guild has said its more than 20,000 members will stop working.
"In the majority of cases, things get resolved," Burke said on the call. "I'm optimistic and hopeful that the strike gets resolved. Strikes aren't good for anybody, strikes aren't good for the people on both sides of the table. ... I'm hopeful that we'll get it done."