TCI results show signs of turnaround

NEW YORK — Tele-Communications Inc. began to show early signs of a turnaround in the second quarter, on Friday reporting a 16% increase in cash flow to $706 million on 7% higher revenue of $1.6 billion.

TCI continued to suffer from an erosion of its subscriber count, however, losing about 89,000 subscribers to end the quarter with 14.19 million. TCI president Leo Hindery blamed the losses largely on seasonal patterns, such as college students moving home for the summer, as well as the impact of rate increases.

Hindery, who was brought in by TCI chairman John Malone early this year to overhaul the troubled company, is banking all on showing subscriber growth by the fourth quarter. On a conference call with reporters, he promised to “kill myself” if TCI didn’t add subscribers in that period.

TCI reported only preliminary numbers Friday from its cable operations, with no detailed financials aside from cash flow and revenue available. Cash flow is earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization. The cabler will report full numbers Wednesday.

Wall Street analysts said the cash flow and subscriber numbers were in line with expectations. TCI stock rose 44¢, to $18.06, driven at least partly by Merrill Lynch analyst Jessica Reif’s decision to upgrade the stock after the result came out.

Reif said in a note to clients she was “confident that TCI will be able to reverse its subscriber losses by the fourth quarter.”

To help ensure Hindery meets his target for subscriber growth, the cabler has sharply increased its spending on marketing. Hindery told reporters that TCI would spend $53 million in the third quarter and about $50 million in the fourth, compared with the “pitiful” amount of $14 million in the first quarter.

Lehman Bros. analyst Larry Petrella said it would be a “decent accomplishment” if Hindery is able to achieve fourth-quarter subscriber growth while maintaining cash flow growth, given the extra marketing costs.

TCI also is hoping it can attract subscribers with its digital television product, which Hindery said was on track to be introduced to most cable systems by the end of the year. While TCI will upgrade 90% of its systems to be able to offer the product, only two-thirds of its systems will be offered the new product because TCI has agreed or is negotiating to transfer systems covering 4 million subscribers into joint ventures managed by other cablers.

Hindery said the second quarter’s cash flow growth reflected “strong continued cost containment.” General and administrative expenses fell $71 million, to $314 million, in the quarter compared with a year earlier.

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