It’s a tough period for the Long Island-based cable company, not helped by a Q3 earnings report this morning that disappointed analysts and sent shares down more than 5%. Execs can’t estimate how much Hurricane Sandy might end up costing, although the company says the number could be “significant.” CEO James Dolan says that “there clearly will be some” homes lost, especially on Long Island’s shore lines. Customers who call Cablevision will be able to receive a rebate based on how long service has been out. But execs shied from providing specifics about the potential losses — as well as other timely subjects including one it raised today: Cablevision says it might sell its systems in Montana, Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado.

The earnings report failed to resolve one of the biggest debates surrounding Cablevision: Can it generate enough additional cash to cover the hefty outlays to upgrade its systems, needed to keep up with the vigorous competition in the northeast from Verizon and AT&T? Cablevision reported a net loss of $3.9M in Q3 vs a $39.6M profit in the period last year on revenues of $1.69B, +1.2%. Revenues were bull’s-eye with the Street’s projection. But the net loss of a penny a share contrasts with expectations for a 16 cent profit. Analysts were less concerned about that number, which includes costs tied to debt repayments, than with operations. Cablevision ended the quarter with 3.26M video subscribers, a loss of 10,000, but — more importantly — with average revenue per subscriber up just 2.1% to $154.83. “That’s not close to fast enough to support margins,” Bernstein Research analyst Craig Moffett says. He adds that “With a long and costly recovery from the storm ahead, and with a longer term growth challenge that seems intractable, we continue to struggle to see the bull case.”

Dolan says that Cablevision has “already made substantial progress on several major initiatives, including the completion of our digital conversion and the further expansion of our Optimum Wi-Fi network. We also strengthened our balance sheet and extended our debt maturity profile through a number of successful financing transactions, which together with our operational initiatives will help us to enhance shareholder value over the long term.”

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