Netflix Poised to Pass Comcast

Cord-cutting couch potatoes can only help the video rental service.

Rick Munarriz
Rick Munarriz
Feb 18, 2011 at 12:00AM

Investors adored Comcast's (Nasdaq: CMCSA) quarterly report:

  • Revenue grew by 7%. Operating profits climbed even higher.
  • Comcast will dramatically beef up its share buyback efforts.
  • The cable giant's giving its dividend rate a welcome hike.

However, I skipped the celebration and went straight to the line buried in Comcast's report that mattered to me most: Its tally of video customers.

Despite the company's bubbly share price, cord-cutting continues at Comcast. The country's largest cable provider closed out the year with 22.8 million video subscribers. That may be a big number, but it remains 135,000 fewer than Comcast had on its rolls a quarter ago, and marks a whopping 757,000 net defections through all of 2010.

Comcast is making up for the shortcoming by selling more Internet access and broadband telephone services. It's also been migrating basic video accounts to pricier digital cable offerings. However, on a net subscriber basis, Comcast's still losing couch potatoes.

Where are they going?
It's a fair bet that Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX) will have more premium subscribers than Comcast by the end of this very quarter. Netflix may only have 20 million subscribers, but if it tacks on another 3.1 million net new members, as it did during the holiday quarter, it will surpass Comcast to become the country's leading premium entertainment service.

The high end of Netflix's subscriber target for this quarter is 22.8 million -- exactly where Comcast is at the moment. But since Netflix has a history of issuing conservative guidance, I bet it'll surpass Comcast by the end of next month. Just wait and see.

Netflix won't be the only one trampling over Comcast this year. Satellite television juggernaut DIRECTV (NYSE: DTV) reports next week, and it has an outside shot at passing up Comcast, too. DIRECTV had 18.9 million subscribers in North America through the end of September. It's gaining the ground that Comcast is yielding. It has 493,000 net additions over the past year. The company would have to accelerate its growth to catch up to Comcast's falling numbers, but that certainly doable. If you count DIRECTV's 5.4 million subscribers in Latin America, the company would have actually overtaken Comcast early last year.

There's also Sirius XM (NYSE: SIRI). The only game in town when it comes to satellite radio closed out 2010 with 20.2 million subscribers. It's targeting an audience of 21.6 million accounts by the end of this year.

Sirius XM has been conservative in its projections over the year and change, so the smart money would be wagering on the over in that bet. If Comcast sheds another nearly 800,000 video customers, and Sirius XM can get its premium radio rolls up over 22 million, we would have yet another company slipping ahead of the cable giant this year.

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Sirius XM obviously isn't gnawing away at Comcast's TV watchers, the way Netflix and DIRECTV appear to be doing, but it represent yet another premium entertainment service growing while Comcast shrinks. Sirius XM has put together six consecutive quarters of sequential membership growth, mirroring the economic turnaround. What's Comcast mirroring, as it and most of its fellow cable providers continue to shed paying customers?

Are you still excited by Comcast's report? Today's premium entertainment golden child could soon settle for silver. By the end of the year, it may not even be fit to be bronzed.

How important is video customer growth for Comcast? Do you think DIRECTV or Sirius will pass it up by year's end? Share your thoughts in the comment box below.