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Better Buy: Comcast Corporation vs. Charter Communications

By Daniel B. Kline – Nov 14, 2016 at 9:26AM

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Both companies are very similar, but there's one really big difference.

When Charter Communications (CHTR 0.95%) purchased Time Warner Cable, it became an equal player to Comcast (CMCSA 1.23%) in the pay-television and internet service spaces.

It was a bold move, in which Charter snapped up a company that Comcast had initially had a deal to buy before federal regulators said no. That decision created the current landscape where the two companies, along with AT&T(T 0.65%), sit as a big three dominating pay television and internet.

Image source: Getty Images.

But just because Comcast and Charter have a lot in common doesn't mean they're the same. Charter, aside from owning some regional sports networks, is a pure subscription play. The company makes the vast majority of its revenue from selling services, including cable, internet, and phone. Comcast, of course, offers those things as well, but it also owns NBC, cable networks including USA, MSNBC, CNBC, and E!, a film studio, and the Universal Studios theme parks.

Deciding which company is a better buy comes down to whether you believe all of the other businesses Comcast owns makes it stronger than being a pure subscription-revenue play. Charter has gone all in on cable, internet, and the other services it sells. Both strategies have merit, but one has a great deal more risk and potential upside.

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The case for Charter

Both companies face cord-cutting risks, and both must deal with he possibility that new technology will someday give people more internet choices. Assuming that neither of those things will bring a major downturn quickly, Charter will sink or swim based on both its ability to hold onto customer and whether it can wring out more money from them.

In Q3, the company showed it could do that by losing 47,000 video customers, while gaining 350,000 broadband users. The video loss is up from 20,000 a year ago, while the internet growth is essentially the same. Those are strong numbers when you consider that the industrywide subscriber counts are dropping for pay television while broadband has been increasing.

Charter gained more customer relationships than it lost. That resulted in its growing Q3 revenues 7.4% to $10 billion. It was a strong quarter that shows the company can manage declining video revenue by making more money from remaining cable customers while adding broadband users.

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The case for Comcast

On the cable and internet side, Comcast faces the exact same risks as its rivals, but it has greater exposure to cord-cutting. The company has a strong cable portfolio, but aside from USA, it doesn't have many stations with widespread popularity.

In fact, when you look at the final rankings for all networks in 2015, only NBC and USA make the top 25. That means that if people opt for skinnier cable bundles or to cut the cord -- many of the NBC cable channels will probably be ones consumers can live without. A smaller cable universe means less money on the subscription side and less money from carriage fees for its channels -- a sort of double whammy that could drag Comcast earnings down, or even sink some of its lesser properties.

That said, Comcast also has massive upside with its film business. It has a number of near-sure-thing billion-dollar franchises, including Jurassic Park, The Fast & the Furious, Despicable Me/Minions and the maybe-not-quite-as-big Jason Bourne movies and a reboot of The Mummy. The company also recently bought DreamWorks Animation, giving it How to Train Your Dragon and Kung Fu Panda, among other properties.

Is Charter or Comcast a better buy?

Ultimately, the cable and internet businesses make the two companies -- as long as your rate management equally -- similar buys. Ultimately, though, Comcast has the edge, because while it does have greater exposure to cord cutting, because it could lose carriage fees as the cable universe shrinks, it can leverage its franchises to mitigate that threat.

In the changing media world, content has become king and Comcast owns a ton of franchises. That may mean using a Fast & The Furious TV series to entice consumers to buy its cable package as part of a skinny bundle or leveraging its cartoon franchises to make its channels something parents can't exist without.

Comcast and Charter are both powerful cable/internet companies that show very little sign of not being able to keep revenue growing. Comcast is a better stock buy, only because going forward it has more tools to protect its subscription base because it owns so much premier content. That's why other subscription-based services have been buying (or trying to buy) media companies, and that gives Comcast the edge over Charter here.

Daniel Kline has no position in any stocks mentioned. He swam today and is going to a Christmas tree lighting. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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