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As technology continues to advance, an increasing number of companies are competing for supremacy in the field of television. Even the term "television" no longer really captures the full spectrum of how we consume visual entertainment, and the battle is just getting warmed up. Whereas just a few decades ago we took a huge leap forward from broadcast TV and the antenna to cable options -- like those from Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA ) -- the landscape today is becoming increasingly diversified and technology-driven.
What you see emerging are four very distinct segments: cable and satellite, streaming video, TV enhancement, and advanced options. While there is certainly overlap among these four areas, both in terms of provider and functionality, each area is critical to understanding the overall market. In this series, I will explore each of the four segments -- and the investment options of each -- and conclude by giving you one view of where the industry may go and how we'll get there.
The traditional players
Cable companies like Comcast and satellite providers like DIRECTV (UNKNOWN: DTV.DL ) and DISH Network (NASDAQ: DISH ) make up the traditional cadre of competitors in this space, although some of the communications companies like AT&T (NYSE: T ) and Verizon (NYSE: VZ ) have made a push to deliver content through these means as well. What makes each of these companies interesting is how they have tried to expand and bring slightly different strengths to the market:
Comcast is the ultimate cable company, but has wisely chosen not to rely only on its distribution business. The company recently acquired NBC, demonstrating its knowledge that if you want to succeed in the new frontier of entertainment, content is king. Where Comcast also excels in is in its efforts to stay current with its service offerings. In response to streaming video, the company rolled out Streampix; in response to DVR competitors, it began offering its own DVR options; and in response to smart TV, the company recently rolled out its X1 service. While Comcast may be the old guard, it has made very clear its willingness to adapt to the changing environment.
DIRECTV and DISH Network
In many ways, these two satellite providers have been the slowest to adapt to the changing environment. DIRECTV's biggest strength is its close association with the NFL -- sports programming is a critical area for these companies. DISH has made some forays into new technology with the Hopper, which allows you to skip commercials. The company recently got a favorable court decision that could pave the way for more developments over time; the court declined to prevent DiISH from selling the Hopper, ruling that it was permissible under a "fair use" theory. Ultimately, however, satellite will need to expand more to adapt to all of these changes.
While AT&T, with U-verse, is somewhat less pervasive an option, the advantage that AT&T has is its strong presence in wireless. As more and more people cut the proverbial cord and become accustomed to receiving content on smaller screens and with increasing mobility, AT&T may have a significant advantage. It already has established strong relationships with content providers, as well as strong relationships with customers that are used for paying for information delivery via smartphones and tablets. As mobility continues to expand, a comprehensive solution from AT&T has real potential.
Similar to AT&T, Verizon is pushing to get into the home entertainment business with FiOS. Verizon is trying to make its mark in the market by offering higher speeds than competitors. Recently, the company announced the rollout of a tier capable of 500 megabits per second on the download side. The high-speed Internet business is a good one, but it is not clear that customers will be willing to make their entertainment choices based purely on broadband dominance.
But how do you profit?
Within the traditional space, I believe there are two keys to making profitable investments. The first is to focus on companies that have superior access to content. That means that Comcast has a solid base, as it has a production arm that already produces significant content. Ultimately, no matter where technology ends up, without the entertainment product to deliver, these companies could be pushed aside.
The second thing you should focus on is adaptability. Here again, Comcast has shown a willingness and an ability to expand beyond the traditional technology and business model. As such, both are solid for the medium-term, but counting out AT&T or Verizon would be a mistake. Mobility will keep growing in importance, and AT&T has an edge there.
Please look for the next articles in this series soon, which will focus on the other three segments and then will consider the industry as a whole.
As the battle for the future of television continues, you should learn all you can about the companies involved. Beyond following this series, you may want to check out The Motley Fool's shocking video presentation, which reveals the secret Steve Jobs took to his grave, and explains why the only real winners are these three lesser-known power players that film your favorite shows. Click here to watch today!