Comcast's ( CMCSK) shares fell Wednesday as investors ignored optimistic talk from the nation's third-largest cable operator to fret over the company's 2002 outlook.

Comcast, which has a deal to merge its operations with AT&T's ( T) cable subsidiary, announced a fourth-quarter loss of $321 million, or 34 cents a share, which was in line with Wall Street estimates. The loss reversed a year-earlier profit of $778.5 million, or 80 cents per share.

But investors were more interested in how fast Comcast will grow this year, and the indications there were mixed at best, observers said. Comcast shares, already trading near a 52-week low, slipped $2.24 to $32.25.

Operating cash flow, which excludes depreciation, amortization, nonoperating gains and other items, amounted to $654.7 million for the quarter, down from $674.9 million one year earlier.

The December 2001 cash flow number, said Comcast, would have been $140 million better were it not for the one-time cost of moving Comcast's high-speed Internet customers served by the now-bankrupt Excite@Home onto Comcast's proprietary network.

Comcast's revenue amounted to $2.8 billion for the fourth quarter, up from $2.4 billion one year earlier. Comcast President Brian Roberts called particular attention to the company's QVC home shopping subsidiary, which reported year-over-year revenue growth of 12.3% to $1.3 billion for the fourth quarter. Operating cash flow for the unit grew 17.4% from one year earlier to $236.1 million.

Looking forward, and ignoring any impact from the expected AT&T transaction, Comcast says its cable operation's revenue should grow 10% to 12%, and operating cash flow should grow between 12% and 14%.

High-speed Internet services, which the company said contributed nearly two-thirds of cable revenue growth in the fourth quarter, should add between 400,000 to 500,000 new customers in 2002, estimates Comcast, compared with the 464,000 added in 2001. The company expects to add between 600,000 and 700,000 digital cable customers, down from 817,000 in 2001. Though those numbers may seem pessimistic, says Deutsche Banc Alex. Brown analyst Karim Zia, the company is in the habit of raising guidance throughout the year.

On the conference call with analysts, the company said it was, in fact, adding new Internet subscribers at the same rate it had before the Excite@Home changeover and 2001 data-service rate increases.

While the company said the advertising sales climate in the fourth quarter was poor, Comcast says it appears that the worst of the ad slump is behind the company. Comcast Cable President Steve Burke spoke highly of the company's ability to sell ads to marketers who want to reach cable subscribers in particular geographic areas. "There is no question we are taking market share from broadcasters," he said.

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