What's Next After This Fourth-Quarter Surprise From Comcast Corp.?

By Anders Bylund Markets Fool.com

Cable giant Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA) presented fourth-quarter results on Thursday morning. The report came in above analyst expectations, and Comcast shares ended the day 2.8% higher.

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Here's how the quarter unfolded for the company.

Comcast's fourth-quarter results: The raw numbers

Metric

Q4 2016

Q4 2015

Year-Over-Year Change

Revenue

$21.0 billion

$19.2 billion

9%

Net income

$2.4 billion

$2.1 billion

18%

Free cash flow

$2.6 billion

$1.6 billion

64%

GAAP EPS (diluted)

$0.95

$0.79

20%

Data source: Comcast.

What happened with Comcast this quarter?

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It's fair to say that Comcast fired on all cylinders this quarter. Every business segment had good news to share, and it added up to strong bottom-line results.

  • The cable segment added 80,000 net new video subscribers in the fourth quarter, helped by the rollout of advanced Xfinity X1 cable boxes. X1 customers are showing lower churn and higher customer satisfaction metrics, and that's music to Comcast's ears. The X1 implementation will continue "at a healthy pace" in 2017, with the company aiming to raise the X1 penetration rate from today's 48% to roughly 60% by the end of this year.
  • This was the first full quarter of contributions from the DreamWorks Animation studio, which Comcast acquired at the end of August. The NBCUniversal division saw a 13% year-over-year revenue boost, thanks to the DreamWorks deal and strong theme park attendance.
  • If the year-over-year increase in free cash flow looks extreme, it's partly because Comcast spent $130 million in the year-ago quarter to add 475 acres of land to its Universal Orlando theme parks. The company is also slowing down from a burst of heavy investments into improvements in the Universal Studios Japan theme park, where Comcast took a 51% ownership stake in the fall of 2015.

Comcast is not in the habit of providing revenue or earnings guidance, and this report was no different. Management did promise to deliver profitable growth in 2017, driving a larger share-buyback program and stronger dividends.

Image source: Comcast.

What management had to say

Comcast's CEO and chairman, Brian Roberts, zoomed his prepared remarks out to focus on the full fiscal year.

"We grew operating cash flow 5.6%, added 161,000 video subscribers, the best video customer results in a decade, and delivered our best high-speed Internet customer results in nine years," Roberts said. "The consistency and strength of our results enables us to announce that we are increasing our dividend by 15% per share, we will split our stock two-for-one, the twelfth split in our company's history, and we expect to repurchase $5 billion of our stock this year."

Looking ahead

I'll be watching Comcast's entry into the wireless communications marketthis year, right at the edge of my seat.

The cable giant bought a large chunk of radio spectrum licenses in 2016 and is now putting that investment to good use. Roberts described his approach to this project as "disciplined," aiming to increase customer loyalty as triple-play bundles turn into quadruple service packages.

Look for Comcast's first wireless market openings this summer. Will consumers flock to the new service, and exactly how will Comcast set its offerings apart from the Big Four networks?

The wireless network is expected to burn as much as $300 million of operating cash in 2017, paving the way to positive cash results in the future.

Keep an eye on that launch. I'll bring the popcorn.

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Anders Bylund has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.