Comcast shares jump 2.8% on 161K TV customer adds in '16 and strong earnings

Comcast Corp. added 161,000 TV subscribers in 2016, its best performance in a decade, as telecommunication firms pulled back on their expansions and online streaming again failed to develop into a quick cable-killer.

Comcast announced the TV subscriber numbers on Thursday morning with its fourth-quarter and full-year earnings. The Philadelphia company boosted its dividend 15 percent to $1.26 a share a year and said it would split its stock 2-for-1. Comcast also will buy back $5 billion in shares this year.

Comcast shares climbed sharply -- up 2.8 percent -- on the earnings and telecom merger speculation. Published reports said that Verizon Communications Inc. is considering acquiring Charter Communications Inc., the nation's No. 2 cable provider. Comcast shares gained $2.06 and closed at $75.50.

Observers view the Trump administration as more open to big telecom mergers than the Obama administration, which quashed Comcast's proposed $45-billion deal for Time Warner Cable though it allowed Charter to purchase Time Warner Cable and AT&T Inc. to acquire DirecTV.

President Trump recently appointed Republican Ajit Pai to head the Federal Communications Commission. Pai, an FCC commissioner for several years, is viewed as deregulatory and would likely back mergers.

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts said in a conference call with analysts: "We are looking forward to working with the new administration. We are encouraged. Stay tuned."

Comcast executives repeated previous forecasts that the company would launch a wireless product to add to its bundle of TV, internet, and wireline phone services in the first half of 2017. 

"Our offering will give customers access to a world-class wireless network benefiting from our WiFi with the best mobile devices and a simple transparent experience, all for a great value," Roberts said.

Mike Cavanagh, Comcast's chief financial officer, said the launch of the wireless business could be a $200 million to $300 million drag on the company in 2017.

How Comcast will accomplish the launch has been a guessing game in the telecom industry, with many experts anticipating that Comcast will acquire wireless spectrum in the ongoing spectrum auction at the Federal Communications Commission. Because of federal rules, Comcast and other companies are not allowed to comment on the auction.

Comcast also has a deal to use Verizon's wireless network, and the cable operator operates millions of WiFi hotspots in its franchise areas, including Philadelphia.

The year-over-year addition of TV customers is a huge relief at Comcast, which lost 3.5 million TV customers between 2007 and 2015. Netflix and other pay-TV products, such as the newly launched AT&T's DirecTV Now, still threaten Comcast's TV business. But a combination of Comcast's X1 set-top box, a sharper focus on customer service, and discounted TV/internet bundles has stabilized the franchise.

While the full-year TV subscriber adds are a surprising turnaround, Comcast-owned NBCUniversal also has wind at its back. The NBC TV network is the nation's No 1-rated network by the widest margin in 19 years, the company says, thanks in part to hits such as This Is Us, just renewed for two additional seasons. And the Universal film studio had box-office hits with Sing and The Secret Life of Pets.

Fourth-quarter revenue for the consolidated operations of Comcast's cable and NBCUniversal jumped 9 percent to $21.9 billion. Net income attributable to Comcast rose to $2.3 billion from $2 billion in the previous year's quarter. 

Full-year revenue rose to $80.4 billion in 2016 from $74.5 billion. Net income attributable to Comcast advanced to $8.7 billion in 2016 from $8.2 billion.