By Liana B. Baker
(Reuters) - Stronger-than-expected growth in NBCUniversal's entertainment unit gave Comcast Corp
"NBCUniversal's 2012 results highlight in particular the improving performance of our broadcast businesses," Comcast Chairman and Chief Executive Brian Roberts said in a call with analysts. "NBC's prime time performance this fall has been improving.
"While we recognize it is early in the turnaround, this is driving a big swing in momentum which should continue to help the network."
NBCUniversal's cable networks, such as the Golf Channel, E! and Bravo among others, rose 3.3 percent to $8.77 billion last year. Cable networks have become the main growth driver in the last few years for the industry.
Roberts said the numbers made an even stronger case for buying out GE's 49 percent stake for $16.7 billion. The deal values NBCUniversal at $39 billion.
Bill Smead, chief investment officer of Smead Capital Management, who owns 273,000 of Comcast said he liked the deal because Comcast will be able to make money on NBC's programming as new ways to watch content emerge.
"There is a myriad of distribution systems that will pay for NBC content in the future," he said.
Comcast said NBCUniversal's total revenue last year rose 13 percent to $23.81 billion. Its broadcast TV network, NBC, a long-time industry laggard, saw the biggest revenue growth, gaining 27.4 percent to $8.15 billion on the strength of popular television events such as the Olympics and the 2012 Super Bowl.
Comcast shares touched a multi-year high of $42 on the Nasdaq, before falling back to $39.99 in later afternoon trade, still up 2.6 percent from Tuesday's close.
Marrying Comcast's more than 22 million cable subscribers with its own and NBCUniversal's content assets is how the company "strategically differentiates" itself from its competitors, Roberts said.
Its rivals Viacom
NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke, a longtime confidante of Roberts, has targeted the Universal Studios theme parks as a rich vein to tap for both growth and investment. Burke, who once ran EuroDisney, cited theme parks as a major area of growth in 2013.
For the second year in a row, Comcast said it would boost its capital investment plan at NBCUniversal, aiming for a 25 percent increase with a big chunk of that pledged to new theme park attractions.
Comcast plans to bring its "Harry Potter" attraction to Hollywood, for instance, taking aim at Disney's
Wunderlich Securities analyst Matthew Harrigan estimates that Comcast invested $155 million in theme parks last year.
"The parks are doing fabulously," said Harrigan. "They were the poor cousin of Disney but not anymore."
Harrigan called NBCUniversal a "work in progress" that was still stabilizing. While he agrees that NBCUniversal is headed in the right direction, he said the Universal studio's full-year operating cash flow in 2012 was underwhelming at $79 million, up from $24 million in 2011.
In addition to the parks, Burke also spotlighted for growth affiliate fees for NBC's cable networks, fees that pay-TV operators give to programmers to distribute their networks, and retransmission consent fees, or payments made to air a network's broadcast signal.
He also said that the rate advertisers pay for commercials on NBCUniversal properties is lower than rivals with weaker ratings and could also improve this year.
Comcast, which ranks as the nation's largest pay-TV operators and still receives the majority of its revenue from its core cable systems business, said it would invest 10 percent more in cable capital expenditures in a bid to increase Internet speeds.
As with most cable companies, its cable unit's growth is coming largely from its Internet service. Last year, it added 1.2 million Internet customers while it lost 336,000 video customers.
The cable business' programming costs should rise in the low double digits this year, Comcast said. Comcast signed a new distribution agreement with Fox on Tuesday for an undisclosed sum that includes the rights for live and on-demand shows, as well as access to Fox's programs on mobile devices.
(Reporting By Liana B. Baker; Editing by Peter Lauria and Leslie Gevirtz)