Talk about a tough act to follow.

Multimedia conglomerate Time Warner ( TWX) and multimedia conglomerate wannabe Comcast ( CMCSA) are slated to report first-quarter financial results this week. The companies' numbers are always closely watched, but investors will be on the lookout for a little extra this time around.

That's because given Viacom's ( VIAB) surprisingly strong performance last week , Comcast and Time Warner will have to do a bang-up job to stand out. Like cable operator Cox ( COX), which also reports this week, the two cable/media biggies are looking for a strong quarter to help break out of their post-January slumps.

On the other hand, don't be surprised if the merger-and-acquisition dramas that surround these companies -- notably, Comcast's unwelcome bid for Disney ( DIS) -- end up taking over the spotlight.

Comcast is slated to release results for the quarter ended March 31 on Wednesday morning. Time Warner releases results that evening, and Cox reveals all on Thursday morning. On Monday, Time Warner slipped a dime to $16.73, Comcast added 90 cents to $29.82 and Cox rose 26 cents to $31.44.

Big Shadow

Certainly, Viacom set the stage for this season's earnings with its better-than-expected results last week. Advertising revenue, which accounted for 48% of the company's top line in the first quarter, grew 21% from year-earlier figures.

But advertising doesn't play the same role at Time Warner, accounting for less than 16% of revenue in 2003, and it is less of a factor at the cable operators.

Instead, investors will continue to focus on subscriptions businesses: Whether Time Warner's America Online is getting any better at navigating the transition from dial-up Internet connections to a broadband consumer Internet, and to what extent cable operators, Time Warner included, will be able to convert advanced services to cash.

Hanging over the results will also be investor concerns about where these companies will spend their cash. If Comcast, as rumblings have it, gives up on its bid for Disney, the next question is whether the company, Cox or Time Warner -- or some combination thereof -- will make a run at Adelphia Communications, the bankrupt cable operator that last week said it would consider selling off its assets rather than trying to emerge from Chapter 11 as a free-standing company.

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