Viacom (VIA), the parent company of MTV, Comedy Central and Paramount, offered an early Christmas present to investors, with a healthy quarterly earnings report driven by increasing advertising revenue and improving profit margins. The media giant reported a 15 percent increase in profit, thanks in part to its third quarter of sequential ad revenue gains.

Viacom's sunny report comes as arch-rival NBC Universal and Comcast (CMCSA) are nearing agreement on a deal that would create a media and distribution juggernaut at a time of wrenching technological change in the media business. Viacom's report kicks off a spate of media company earnings, which should serve as a barometer for the battered industry.
Viacom said that profit rose to $463 million, or 76 cents a share, from $401 million, or 65 cents a share, one year ago. Excluding certain items, earnings totaled 69 cents per share, well exceeding the 57 cents analysts had expected. Total revenue fell 3 percent to $3.32 billion, largely in line with the $3.3 billion expected from analysts.

"They beat my expectations on the bottom line," James C. Goss, an analyst at Barrington Research, told DailyFinance. "Revenues were better, but cost-containment strategies really helped."

Viacom shares were trading down about 0.4 percent in midday action amid a general market dip.

Goss said the good sales in what he called Viacom's "ancillary" businesses helped as well, particularly in the video game space. "Even though The Beatles: Rock Band game was only out for a few weeks, it helped," Goss said. "I imagine the fourth quarter will be pretty good there as well."

Viacom said ratings for MTV, its flagship entertainment station, were on the rise, and Paramount, its movie studio, saw its worldwide theatrical revenue up 16 percent over last year.

"On the film side, they continue to make progress by having fewer films and focusing more on the blockbuster," Goss said. "Star Trek, Transformers, and GI Joe all did well. Plus, they had Paranormal Activity, a virtually free movie, which had viral ad campaign and has $85 million to date."

DVD sales flagged however, pulling worldwide home entertainment revenue down 21 percent, but moviegoers blunted the impact of that decline.

Viacom's healthy report comes as Comcast, the largest cable company in the country, is inching closer to a deal to buy a controlling stake in NBC Universal from GE (GE), the giant industrial conglomerate.

The basics of the deal have been hammered out, according to a report from The New York Times. Per the terms, Comcast would take control of NBC Universal with 51 percent of the new company, and contribute several billions of dollars in cash as well its own roster of cable networks. GE, which currently owns 80 percent of NBC Universal, would hold on to the other 49 percent and contribute about $12 billion in debt to the new media company.

However, the deal still faces hurdles. The parties must arrive at a satisfactory valuation of NBC Universal in order for French media giant Vivendi to sell the 20 percent stake its owns. GE would eventually unwind its position in the new entity, finally exiting the media business, as some of its own shareholders have been clamoring for it to do so for years.

The Comcast-NBC Universal deal could be announced as early as this week. The pairing would be virtually certain to attract regulatory scrutiny.

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