On Thursday, No. 2 U.S. cable operator Time Warner Cable (UNKNOWN:TWC.DL) 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.
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.
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.
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!