Economy Slows Cable's Momentum

logo1Comcast, the nation’s largest cable operator, beat earnings and sales expectations for the fourth quarter, but still managed to disappoint when it came to the number of new subscribers for television and broadband services.

Comcast (s cmsca) this morning reported earnings of $412 million on sales of $8.77 billion for the fourth quarter. However, like its rival Time Warner Cable (s TWC), Comcast managed to lose basic subscribers without making them up on the high end. Comcast lost 233,000 basic cable subscribers, while analysts had expected losses more in the neighborhood of 150,000. Worse, it only added 247,000 of the digital subscribers who pay higher rates — less than half of what Wall Street had hoped for.

Video was disappointing, but broadband really blew it: Comcast added only 184,000 broadband subscribers, while analysts had anticipated 250,000. Despite that disappointment, Comcast still ended the year with 14.9 million broadband subscribers,  making it the largest broadband provider in the country keeping it close behind AT&T’s (s T) 15.1 million subscribers. Comcast is still stealing DSL customers from the telcos thanks to faster speeds, with 66 percent of its new customers switching to cable from a DSL line vs. 44 percent who did so a year ago.

Cable providers may not be as immune to the economic downturn as anticipated. While consumers may not be cutting their cable outright, they may be cutting back on the number of homes they own and buy services for.  On the earnings conference call, executives said they’re seeing increasing competition from carriers, as well as more customers calling for rate reductions.

On the wireless front, aside from a $600 million Clearwire (s clwr) write down (also taken by Intel (s intc), Time Warner Cable and Google (s goog)), there’s nothing new to report. For those looking ahead, Canoe Ventures, the cable companies joint advertising service venutre, will roll out the first interactive advertisements that use what you watch to deliver “better ads” this spring, privacy implications and all.