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Comcast's Smit: Factors Leading to Subscriber Improvements Sustainable

Comcast Cable CEO Neil Smit said the company's strong fourth quarter subscriber performance was a combination of sustainable efforts across all lines of the business, but stopped short of predicting when the cable giant will cross into positive video customer growth.
Comcast lost just 17,000 video customers in the fourth quarter (compared to a loss of 135,000 in the prior year), significantly less than analysts' expectations. For the full year, Comcast lost 460,000 video customers for the full year, 40% fewer than in 2010.
Smit, speaking at the Deutsche Bank Media & Telecom conference in Palm Beach, Fla., Wednesday, said the improved performance was the result of several factors, including a sharp decline in the level of telco overbuilds in the period from 2.5 million in 2010 to 1.1 million in 2011. But the main catalysts weren't one-time gains, but sustainable measures such as launching new products (16 in 2011, more than the previous two years combined), improved customer service (Comcast reduced truck rolls by 2 million and calls to its service agents by 8 million in the year), and improved marketing.
"Of those net gain improvements, most of it was driven by retention and less churn," Smit said. "All these changes are sustainable; they're not just one-time promotions and discounts."
But Smit stopped short when asked by what date Comcast could report actual video subscriber growth, adding that he would rather focus on the overall business. And though Comcast has made great strides in improving subscriber metrics, the company, like all of its publicly traded peers, is still losing customers.
"While we improved 85% over last year, and 40% on the year," Smit said. "If we did another 40% improvement next year, we'd still be losing subs. And don't get me wrong, I hate losing subs."
Smit pointed to RGU growth - Comcast added 1.4 million RGUs in 2011 - and pointed to new product launches like its IPad app (4 million downloads and counting) and its X1 interactive program guide. Smit offered a taste of X1 at the conference, noting that the guide will help users find appealing content through a recommendation engine that suggests programming.
Smit also touted Comcast's recently launched Streampix service as a complement to Netflix, adding that Comcast created the online video service to give customers "no reason to go anywhere else."