DirecTV Loss Narrows, Subscriptions Grow

DirecTV Group Inc. (DTV) Thursday posted a narrower fourth-quarter loss, but the top U.S. satellite television operator's subscriber growth disappointed some Wall Street analysts, sending shares down 3 percent.

DirecTV posted a loss of $283 million, or 20 cents a share, compared with a loss of $310 million, or 22 cents a share, a year earlier. The fourth-quarter loss included pretax charges of $262 million from an asset sale and reorganization charges.

But the company added 444,000 net subscribers during the quarter, compared with the Wall Street range of around 400,000.

"The key concern here is that subscriber acquisition costs and subscriber retention marketing costs continue to grow much faster than revenue," Craig Moffett, cable analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein, said.

DirecTV and rival EchoStar Communications Corp. (DISH) have touted their ability to steal market share from cable operators over the past few years.

But DirecTV's fourth-quarter subscriber tally could portend a dampening of the sector's momentum, analysts said.

"For 2005, we think cable will have a much better year than they did in 2004," Thomas Eagan, an analyst at Oppenheimer & Co. said. "Maybe it's already starting to happen."

In particular, analysts said the subscriber figures might indicate that subscriber growth through its partnerships with phone companies could be slowing.

Satellite companies inked ventures with the country's largest phone companies to offer a combination of video, phone and high-speed Internet services to counter similar packages from cable companies.

SBC Communications told investors on Wednesday it added 97,000 net new subscribers from its partnership with EchoStar, down from 105,000 customers in the third quarter and 121,000 in the second quarter.

DirecTV executives said their co-marketing arrangements contributed new subscribers at a faster clip than prior quarters. A partnership with Verizon (VZ) and BellSouth (BLS) brought in 50 percent more subscribers in the fourth quarter than they did in the third, Mitchell Stern, CEO of DirecTV told analysts.

In an interview, executives later declined to break out the figures, but said phone companies and DirecTV marketed the bundle in earnest only late last year. A deal with Qwest Communications will also begin this quarter.

"It's a major component in what we're doing," Stern told Reuters. "We're talking about other ways to co-market."

DirecTV revenue rose 22 percent to $3.36 billion. Analysts had expected the El Segundo, Calif.-based company to post revenue of $3.23 billion, according to Reuters Estimates.

DirecTV, which is controlled by media conglomerate News Corp. (NWS), disclosed last week that it had been contacted by the Securities and Exchange Commission (search) about several 2004 transactions.

The transactions include a deal to sell its set-top box division to French electronics company Thomson SA for $250 million, and a $1.47 billion write-down of its Spaceway satellites.

Shares of DirecTV fell 50 cents, or 3.16 percent, to $15.30 on the New York Stock Exchange.

News Corp. is the parent company of the Fox News Channel, which operates