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The rumored release of Coinstar's (NASDAQ: OUTR  ) Redbox Instant -- which had been rumored to be on December 17, but which will now be delayed until the first half of 2013 -- will mark the introduction of yet another major competitor to cable television. To an increasing extent, programming options available through Comcast's (NASDAQ: CMCSA  ) vast cable empire are also available through one of the major streaming video services, albeit with a definite lag between the original air date and the streaming availability date. Where the likes of Netflix (NASDAQ: NFLX  ) and Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN  ) offer similar content at a fraction of the price, the great equalizer is sports.

You may be willing to watch your favorite shows anywhere from a few days to an entire season behind, but sporting events are essentially a real-time viewing choice. As an increasing number of consumers opt to forgo expensive cable programming in favor of a streaming option, the very future of cable may be inexorably tied to sports. Ultimately, Comcast is well positioned in this arena, but its control over sports programming should serve as a barometer of its future success.

Pricing power
Relative to the price of streaming video service, between which there is significant price competition, the price of even basic cable is high. Where Netflix charges its customers $8 per month for streaming video, Amazon Prime is priced at $79 per year, and Redbox Instant, which is being released in partnership with Verizon, is expected to cost $6 per month, or $8 with four physical DVD rentals per month. The cheapest options available from Comcast are in the vicinity of $30 per month. At this type of price differential, consumers have the option of buying several streaming options, and still paying less for service than they pay for cable.

One of the significant offsets to this price savings is the reality that customers who opt for high speed Internet alone are charged up to $20 per month more than when the service is bundled with cable TV. This is not the case with all ISPs, but is one way that Comcast encourages its customers to opt into its cable service. The general market consensus seems to be that Comcast provides the fastest and most reliable Internet service, making the cost somewhat of a necessity for those who insist on top-tier service.

Another way that Comcast is fighting back against the growing availability of streaming video alternatives is with the introduction of its own service called Streampix. The service, which is free to subscribers who carry a high enough level (digital basic at $59 per month), gives customers access to much of the content that Comcast has available, much of it sooner than it's available through other services. Customers who have lower levels of service can access to the content for an additional fee.

Thus far, Streampix has been mostly seen as a tool through which Comcast was attempting to retain customers, rather than grow its core business. In some cases, it was meant to be an incentive to upgrade to a higher service level, while in other cases, it was designed to be a reason to retain Comcast rather than going with a Netflix-only approach. In the future, you should expect to see the company work to expand the service, and offer it as a Netflix alternative through the Xfinity app.

The rise of sports programming
Largely in response to the differentiating power of sports programming for cable and network television, one has only to turn on the TV on a Saturday to witness this phenomenon. Where once you could be guaranteed a few critical college football games each weekend, there are now six or more games on at any given time. Even with the real time value of sports programming, many of these games are rebroadcast over the course of the weekend to ensure that current games are made available. While this has little impact on non-sports fans, and is something of a nirvana for those of us who love to watch college football, it is emblematic of the shift that is occurring.

The real threat to Comcast, then, as well as other cable and dish providers, is that some entity will come along and find a way to provide real-time sports through an online streaming delivery system. The dollar value and duration of the contracts that exist between the various leagues and the major networks create a high barrier to entry, but with the kind of money involved, it's not inconceivable. This risk leads one to consider why Comcast itself does not create such a service and make it available through non-Comcast distribution channels.

DIRECTV (NYSE: DTV.DL  ) , for example, offers NFL Sunday Ticket to both its regular TV subscribers, and also makes the service available for online subscribers through a variety of alternative devices. The product was once an add-on for subscribers, but has become an integrated offering in response to the need for sports to keep its customers. As more of these types of services become available, particularly if they are competitively priced, the days of cable may fade away.

Getting d'ed up
While the ultimate demise of cable is likely several, if not many, years away, the proverbial writing is on the wall. As things stand, sports is a significant factor of differentiation, but that may change, as well. While shorting either Comcast or DirecTV is premature, neither are names to be heavily long on. 

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