Comcast down 32%

Sprint PCS deal cited as cabler suffers hit

NEW YORK — Comcast Corp. reported Tuesday that, despite a 20.3% increase that took first-quarter revenues to $1.1 billion, its net loss for common shareholders widened 32% to $86 million.

Countering news of the loss — primarily the result of investment spending in its partnership with Sprint PCS to build a personal communications service network — was a 16.4% gain in earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, or operating cash flow, to $388.3 million.

Comcast’s cable division continued to be the company’s lead performer, as revenues increased 8% to $541.2 million and operating cash flow rose 8.3% to $249.4 million.

The division also added 23,100 cable customers while keepings its operating margins flat at 46%, prompting Merrill Lynch analyst Jessica Reif Cohen to comment: “All the underlying trends are great.”

The entertainment analyst added that she expects Comcast to become “the first significant cable company to produce a positive cash flow on a sustainable basis.”

The results include the operations of E! Entertainment Television, which Comcast acquired on March 31, 1997, and Comcast-Spectacor, the majority-owned sports joint venture consolidated on Jan. 1, 1998. Had both units been on board for all of the preceding year, Comcast said revenues and operating cash flow for the quarter ended March 31 would have been up 12.1% and 10.6%, respectively.

Meanwhile, for Comcast’s QVC-led electronic-retailing operation, revenues rose 13.5% to $544.6 million as operating cash flow gained 20.3% to $95.2 million. The gains were attributed to steady growth at home and to solid gains from international expansion, particularly in the U.K.

For the cellular division, revenues rose 1.2% to $105.4 million as operating cash flow gained 4.8% to $39.5 million.

While Comcast’s cellular operations serve markets with populations in excess of 8.4 million, its personal communications services are provided through its investment in current loss-leader Sprint PCS.

Comcast’s share of these losses from its 15% stake were $84.7 million, accounting for the bulk of the $129.7 million that Comcast attributed to equity in net losses of all affiliates.