Cable Strikes Up an Advertising Band

The typically slow-moving cable companies just may be on the verge of a major change in their operations -- one that could be difficult for the competition to replicate.

It appears that half a dozen cable multiple system operators (MSOs), led by industry kingpin Comcast (Nasdaq: CMCSA  ) and including Time Warner Cable (NYSE: TWC  ) , Cablevision (NYSE: CVC  ) , and Charter (Nasdaq: CHTR  ) , are teaming up in the formation of a separate company that will make targeted and customized ad opportunities available on the systems of any or all of the participants. The group also includes a pair of private companies, Bright House Networks and Cox Communications.

The new company, which for now is operating under the temporary Project Canoe moniker, is being overseen by Stephen Burke, Comcast's president, and Time Warner Cable COO Landel Hobbs. It'll apparently be seeded with about $150 million by the participants, with Comcast putting in between a third and nearly a half of the total. According to a New York Times story, those leading the formation of Project Canoe believe it could result in a meaningful increase in the industry's annual ad revenue.

Somewhat surprisingly, significant advertising revenue is a relatively recent phenomenon for the cable industry. Unlike most other media, as recently as a decade ago, ad sales were small potatoes for the MSOs. But with the average cable subscriber's monthly bill now at $100 or more, advertising has become a progressively more important contributor to revenue growth. On that basis alone, floating this new canoe could be a big deal.

In a somewhat related area, Comcast CFO Michael Angelakis earlier this week told attendees at the Bear Stearns Media Conference that his company is trying to corral more video-on-demand content and that it realizes that VOD is in need of navigation improvement. That's precisely what I meant by the "slow-moving" label above: Those needs have been obvious for many years.

Nevertheless, from an investment perspective, the cable companies -- all of which are trading near their 52-week lows -- are making progress, albeit ploddingly. On that basis, and with attractive ideas difficult to come by these days, I might at least partially rescind my prior recommendation that Fools swear off cable for a while. Given its status as the sole dividend-paying MSO, Comcast just might be worth a second look.

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