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Can Comcast Rule Digital Media?

It seems to me like people just have a recurring itch to buy some companies or industries. When cable companies like Comcast (Nasdaq: CMCSA  ) were very young, nobody thought that people would pay for TV. Then the worry moved on to whether cable companies would ever reverse those huge losses and earn back their capital expenditures. Now the gripe du jour seems to be about cell phones, PDA's, Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) iPods, and whatnot sucking away the content and dollars from the hands of the cable companies.

Lost in all this is the healthy cash flow produced by good operators like Comcast, even while in the midst of upgrading the infrastructure to handle HDTV, digital video recording, and other services. Looking at the third quarter, Comcast saw high-single-digit revenue growth, but nearly 13% growth in operating cash flow. On the bottom line, earnings were flat and missed the average analyst estimate.

There was ample information in the company's press release for investors to mull over. Digital subscribers increased by more than 12%, and high-speed Internet penetration is almost 20%. Revenue and cash flow from the content businesses both increased at double-digit clips, as well.

Although cable companies can produce a lot of cash flow, I do see some reasons for caution here. First, Comcast has to contend with satellite-based providers that are accelerating their own rollouts of higher-end services. That means accelerating capital spending for Comcast and less free cash flow. Second, launching NHL coverage on OLN costs money and has led the company to lower its cash flow growth forecast -- again, less free cash flow. Last but not least, there are rivals like Verizon (NYSE: VZ  ) and SBC (NYSE: SBC  ) that will not only fight to keep their phone service revenue but will challenge Comcast on high-speed Internet and eventually digital TV, as well.

I'm not about to join the chorus of those who think that cable TV is doomed. Rather, I just happen to think that Comcast has some challenges right now, and that the current stock price doesn't seem like that much of an opportunity to me. At the right price, though, a consistent cash creator that dips its fingers into its customer's pocket every month has a definite appeal.

Follow up with some other media-savvy Foolishness:

SBC is aMotley Fool Stock Advisorrecommendation.

The Motley Fool has kicked off its ninth annual Foolanthropy campaign! Nominate your favorite charities on ourFoolanthropy discussion boardthrough Nov. 6. For guidelines on what makes a charity Foolish,

Fool contributor Stephen Simpson has no financial interest in any stocks mentioned (that means he's neither long nor short the shares).

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