NBC’s sudden ratings woes and other themes to listen for on Comcast earnings call

After Comcast Corp.’s report Tuesday of better-than-expected fourth-quarter earnings, that it will raise its quarterly dividend by 20% and buy the 49% of NBC Universal it doesn’t already own from GE for $16.7 billion, there are a number of interesting threads to follow on Wednesday morning’s conference call.

1. As some had feared, NBC’s ratings have plunged after a strong start fueled by “Sunday Night Football” and “The Voice.” Having now officially committed to full ownership of NBC Universal, management will surely explain how it intends to address the situation, which is all the more frustrating because the network has been a perennial loser since 2004.

Ratings for broadcast television have of course been in decline for some time, but starting last spring, the drop has accelerated, as time-shifted viewing, cable and online video have taken a greater toll.

2. Rising programming costs have been a major concern throughout the industry, and analysts may ask for Comcast’s latest thoughts on how to manage such expenses, especially now that it has the entire burden of NBCU on its shoulders.

Rival Time Warner Cable has controversially taken to dropping low-rated channels from its lineup.

3. Broadband growth was strong for the quarter, as the company had 341,000 more high-speed Internet customers than it had at the end of 2011. Time Warner Cable had a significant drop in broadband customer growth in the same period because it opted to increase prices.

Analysts may ask what kind of slowdown Comcast expects as it pushes through Xfinity price hikes in 2013.

4. Comcast usually addresses the state of the broader economy, particularly housing starts, which have a direct effect on the rate of cable service connections.