NBCUniversal First-Quarter Financials Improve

Steve Burke - PR Headshot - P - 2011

UPDATED: Cable giant Comcast, which controls the entertainment company, also posted better results, but didn't return to video subscriber growth as some had predicted.

NBCUniversal, led by CEO Steve Burke, on Wednesday posted higher first-quarter financials.

Operating cash flow rose 34 percent to $813 million. Revenue of $5.5 billion rose 18 percent, or 12.4 percent when excluding the Super Bowl.

The earnings report came out just as fellow entertainment giant Time Warner had posted its latest financials.

Comcast chairman and CEO Brian Roberts said he was "pleased with the performance of NBCUniversal, which posted strong revenue growth, led by the Super Bowl and successful film releases, along with reliable growth in our theme parks and cable networks, and steady progress in broadcast."

Looking ahead at this summer, he said: "We are looking forward to events like the Olympics that will bring together all of our company's unique abilities to deliver compelling stories and new digital experiences across every screen, in and out of the home."

Comcast's overall revenue increased 22.7 percent to $14.9 billion. It acquired NBCUniversal at the end of last January. Earnings rose from $943 million to $1.2 billion. The profit exceeded Wall Street expectations.

The company's cable systems lost 37,000 video subscribers in the first quarter despite some analysts' forecasts that the largest U.S. cable operator may return to sub gains in the quarter. But its sub trends improved over 39,000 losses in the year-ago period despite increased telecom competition and higher monthly prices instituted by Comcast.

NBCUniversal's broadcast TV revenue jumped 36.9 percent to $1.9 billion, helped by $259 million from the Super Bowl, but higher costs meant an operating cash flow loss of $10 million following a year-ago profit of $20 million. 

Cable networks , the company's the largest financial driver, drive revenue 5.8 percent higher to $2.1 billion, but operating cash flow dropped 1.4 percent to $805 million amid higher programming  costs. Burke said the NBA lockout was one of the things that "depressed" cable networks unit growth in the latest quarter. Excluding these factors, the cable channels would have seen mid single digit percentage growth, he said.

Film unit revenue jumped 22.3 percent, helped by higher theatrical revenue driven by the success of The Lorax and Safe House and better home entertainment trends thanks to the releases of Hop and Tower Heist. Film operating cash flow swung to a positive $6 million from a year-ago loss of $146 million. Theme parks revenue rose 5.7 percent, with operating cash flow up 17.1 percent.

On Comcast's earnings conference call, Burke reiterated key drivers of potential future upside for NBCUniversal. "We are underperforming our peers," he said about the NBC broadcast unit. If the company can bring that in line with its peers, there are hundreds of millions of dollars in potential upside. "We are starting to make some progress," Burke said. "But there is a long way to go."
He also cited Spanish-language broadcaster Telemundo as a key business with upside potential.

Roberts on Wednesday also touted the recent launch of the company's Streampix streaming video library content service. Only available to Comcast video subscribers, it plays in the space that Netflix and Hulu Plus have been successful in. Roberts said that company is now starting to promote the service and saw "real usage right out of the box" in March. He said his hope was to increase the quality and quantity of content available to subscribers. Comcast Cable boss Neil Smit also said that the streaming service adds to current TV and VOD offers by adding library content.

Asked about potenial plans for usage-based broadband pricing that observers have said could affect such broadband video services as Netfix, Smit reiterated previous comments that Comcast currently had no plans for such pricing based on Web usage.

Email: Georg.Szalai@thr.com
Twitter: @georgszalai