Maybe Cable Isn't About to Die After All!

On Thursday, No. 2 U.S. cable operator Time Warner Cable (NYSE: TWC  ) reported what even management called "dismal" subscriber losses for Q4 and all of 2013. At first glance, this would seem to support the theory that the combination of strong competition in TV from phone and satellite companies and the rise of Internet video services such as Netflix (NASDAQ: NFLX  ) is gradually strangling the cable industry.

Time Warner Cable lost a lot of video customers in 2013.

However, the story isn't quite so simple. While Time Warner Cable lost a lot of subscribers last quarter, that weak performance can be largely traced to the after-effects of a big contract dispute with CBS (NYSE: CBS  ) . Based on the early data available, Time Warner Cable seems to be bouncing back now.

Meanwhile, top cable operator Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA  ) actually reported very strong results earlier this week. Thus, while plenty of people are still complaining about the size of their cable bills, cable operators are finding ways to stabilize their video subscriber numbers. If recent trends are any indication, the cable industry may be surprisingly long-lived.

The Comcast turnaround
Comcast surprised many investors by reporting that it increased its video subscriber base in Q4. While the company added only 43,000 video subscribers, the Q4 gain followed 26 consecutive quarters of subscriber losses. Just a few months ago, Comcast's residential business seemed to be stuck in a downward spiral; now it looks like it may be stabilizing.

Comcast gained video customers last quarter for the first time since early 2007!

There are many potential explanations for this improvement. For example, Comcast has worked to increase the percentage of customers subscribing to double-play and triple-play packages (combining video, high-speed Internet, and/or voice service). These subscribers have been less likely to cancel any of their services, historically.

Comcast is also investing heavily in the new X1 platform, which is an Internet-connected set-top box. X1 (and its successor, X2) makes Comcast much more competitive with Netflix from a user-interface standpoint. Comcast claims that X1 users are more likely to become "triple play" subscribers, and are less likely to cancel their Comcast service.

Signs of life at Time Warner Cable?
Time Warner Cable has had more trouble than Comcast in retaining subscribers in recent years. Its problems reached a peak over the summer, when a dispute over fees with CBS caused the latter to pull its broadcast channel and premium channels like Showtime off of Time Warner Cable for more than a month. This service interruption was a big reason why Time Warner Cable lost more than 300,000 video subscribers in Q3.

Time Warmer Cable lost another 217,000 residential video subscribers last quarter, which is not exactly encouraging. However, the bulk of those losses came in October, when the company was still suffering blowback from the CBS dispute.

In each of the next three months, Time Warner Cable has seen better retention numbers, culminating in its best January performance in the past five years.

Looking at the big picture, Time Warner Cable has posted strong earnings growth in recent years, and its stock has performed quite well despite its video customer losses. I'm still not convinced that the company will be able to return to growth in the TV business, as management would like to do. However, Comcast's solid performance last quarter and the improving trends at Time Warner Cable at least provide hope that stabilization is feasible by the end of this year.

Foolish bottom line
While Netflix's explosive growth has been a major story of the last year or so, for the most part it has not cannibalized pay-TV operators. As Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has often noted, the Netflix streaming service has grown to reach over 33 million subscribers, yet the total number of pay-TV subscribers has remained constant at around 100 million.

Netflix's explosive growth has had a surprisingly small impact on pay-TV operators.

Still, with Netflix and other streaming video services such as Amazon.com's Prime improving their content quality (and quantity), investors have had good reason to wonder whether pay-TV operators' days were numbered.

Comcast's return to video subscriber growth -- albeit very modest growth -- should give investors more confidence in the viability of traditional pay-TV over the next decade or so. Even perennial laggard Time Warner Cable seems to be stabilizing its subscriber base. Cable companies may be on the defensive, but they're not dead yet!

The smartest way to profit from the evolution of TV
The battle between traditional pay-TV services and Internet video outfits like Netflix and Amazon has turned into a full-fledged war for your living room. However, three companies are poised to profit no matter who ends up winning this contest. Click here for their names! (Hint: They're not Netflix, Google, and Apple.)


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  • Report this Comment On February 01, 2014, at 1:02 PM, duuude1 wrote:

    You've got the last word on this discussion, Adam:

    "...yet"

    :)

    best,

    Duuude1

    (still hoping you'll close your short positions on NFLX...)

    ((...and keeping a spare quarter to put in your tin cup when I see you on the street if you don't))

  • Report this Comment On February 01, 2014, at 2:39 PM, trdr2012 wrote:

    The viewing model and trend SVOD (streaming video on demand) are alive and well and here to stay.

    We cut the cord (axed) cable 8 yrs. ago and have been NFLX subscribers for three, recently transitioning from the streaming + disc option to just streaming. At $7.99 per month (also AMZN prime subscribers), NFLX offers present and potential subscribers a "hard-to-beat" value proposition, which has been reflected in continued, ongoing subscriber growth. Bullish investor enthusiasm has seemingly paralleled the thesis and trend.

    Cable companies are nervous and understandably so.

  • Report this Comment On February 01, 2014, at 4:50 PM, TMFGemHunter wrote:

    @trder2012: I don't disagree that SVOD will continue to grow. But very little of its growth has come at the expense of traditional pay-TV providers. There are about 100 million pay-TV households in the US and perhaps 115-120 million households total, so cord-cutters are still a distinct minority.

    Netflix and other SVOD companies don't carry sports programming and won't for the foreseeable future because of the cost. Cutting the cord is hard if you are a die-hard sports fan.

    Personally, I cut the cord about a year and a half ago, primarily for financial reasons. But I ended up signing up with Comcast again several months ago. I don't even use it that much, so it's not a great "value", but I'm much happier having full access to sports and TV shows when I want it.

    Adam

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