- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 23, 2011

NEW YORK (AP) - DirecTV Group Inc., the nation’s largest satellite TV operator, on Wednesday said it attracted more new subscribers in the fourth quarter than it has in any quarter in a decade.

Shares of the El Segundo, Calif.-based company rose $1.59, or 3.6 percent, to $45.81 in late morning trading. Earlier in the day, the stock hit $46.90, an all-time high.

The company said it added a net 667,000 subscribers in the October to December period, reflecting strong performance both in the U.S. and Latin America.

In the U.S., it added 289,000 subscribers, more than double the 119,000 subscribers it added a year ago. It also exceeded analyst expectations around 250,000.

It’s the strongest subscriber addition figure from a U.S. pay-TV company so far for the fourth quarter. Cable companies are losing subscribers to satellite and phone-company video services. The specter of substitution by Internet video also hangs over the industry.

DirecTV is rushing to connect its set-top boxes to the Internet so it can offer movie downloads. CEO Mike White said it wants to have 40 percent of its set-top boxes connected in 2013. He also signaled that the popularity of Netflix Inc.’s movie-streaming service is affecting talks with content providers like movie studios.

“We want a competitive level playing field versus Netflix in whatever it is we do,” White told analysts on a conference call.

Chief Financial Officer Patrick Doyle said the strong U.S. subscriber figure was due to the continued popularity of DirecTV’s digital video recorder, which can be used from more than one room, and free high-definition programming. The company has also improved its ability to retain customers, with call-center agents who are specifically trained to deal with customers who are at risk of cancelling service, Doyle said.

DirecTV’s net income was $618 million, or 74 cents per share. That compares with a loss of $32 million, or 3 cents per share, in the same period a year ago, when it took charges related to a merger.

Analysts polled by FactSet expected earnings of 63 cents per share, on average.

Revenue grew 11 percent to $6.62 billion from $5.98 billion, beating the average analyst estimate of $6.52 billion.

At Latin American operations Sky Brazil and PanAmericana, DirecTV added 378,000 subscribers, to reach 5.8 million.

The U.S. total was 19.2 million, making DirecTV the second-largest pay-TV provider after Comcast Corp.

For the full year, DirecTV had net income of $2.2 billion, or $2.30 a share, on $24.1 billion in revenue. In 2009, it earned $942 million, or 95 cents per share, on $21.6 billion in revenue.

Dish Network Corp., DirecTV’s smaller rival, reports fourth-quarter results on Thursday.