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NBC U drives record GE earnings in 4th Q

Strong showing takes analysts by surprise

NEW YORK — Not even a slow season at the Peacock could derail NBC U, as the newly merged entity helped drive parent conglom General Electric’s record revenue and earnings thanks primarily to strong B.O. and DVD sales.

GE chief exec Jeffrey Immelt telegraphed the entertainment unit’s importance when he gave the $235 million-and-counting gross for “Meet the Fockers” marquee billing during an earnings call.

The strong showing by NBC U, which posted an $860 million operating profit in the fourth quarter, even took some Wall Street analysts by surprise. Valid comparisons to last year weren’t available, as GE didn’t own Uni at the time. Revenue for NBC U in the quarter was $4.34 billion.

For all of 2004, NBC U made a $2.6 billion profit on revenue of $12.9 billion. Universal was only part of the company since May, however.

In touting NBC U’s performance in the fourth quarter, Immelt also pointed to the moderate success of Universal Studio’s “Ray” and shipments of more than 70 million DVD and VHS units in the quarter, led by “Van Helsing,” “The Chronicles of Riddick” and “The Bourne Supremacy.”

Immelt was far less buoyant when talking about the NBC television network, saying the ratings downturn was “disappointing.” NBC’s financial perf in the 4Q was downright sluggish compared to its sister studio, with operating profit up by 5% and revenues down by 3%.

Still, it was hard to dampen Immelt’s good mood. He said GE’s acquisition of U is already proving to be a boon.

“GE had a tremendous fourth quarter and an excellent 2004, as we completed our strategic repositioning and returned to double-digit earnings growth in the quarter,” Immelt said.

Immelt said he expected more of the same from NBC U in the first quarter of 2005, predicting that the entertainment arm would see profits up by as much as 50%.

Other GE divisions making strong financial gains in the 4Q 2004 were health care, consumer, industrial and infrastructure.

GE’s net income in the 4Q was $5.38 billion, up 18% from a year ago, on revenue of $43.7 billion, which also jumped 18%. Both top and bottom line numbers were a record for any GE quarter.

For the year, GE saw its revenue jump 14% to $152.36 billion and net income climb 6% to $16.6 billion.

Shares in General Electric closed down less than 1% Friday at $35.13.