The cable industry has entered an odd sort of stasis.
Charter Communications (NASDAQ:CHTR) is waiting on a Federal Communications Commission decision on its attempt to buy Time Warner Cable (NYSE: TWC) for about $79 billion, including assumed debt, along with a separate deal to purchase privately held Bright House for $10.4 billion. While the federal agency reviews the deals -- which most analysts expect to be approved, perhaps with some conditions -- effectively nothing new happens.
For Charter, it has been business as usual, with the major caveat that it's most likely about to go from being a relatively small player in cable and broadband to the clear No. 2. If the deals are approved, the company that will become New Charter will be nearly as big as industry leaders Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA) and AT&T(NYSE:T) (which grew massively because of its DirecTV acquisition).
Assuming the FCC says yes, everything is about to change for Charter, and that makes its Q4 results -- due Thursday -- a lot less important than they would be in a normal year. The final quarter of 2015 is essentially a placeholder for a company that most likely won't exist in its current fashion at some point in the first half of 2016.
What to look for
Charter's potential acquisition, Time Warner Cable, reported a very strong fourth quarter, with revenue growing 4.9% while the company added 54,000 cable customers and 281,000 broadband subscribers. Those are very strong numbers that on the pay-TV side buck the industry trend, which has been in a slight decline because of cord cutting.
You can attribute some of those gains to TWC's cleaning up its act and improving its customer service, at least partly to look better while under FCC scrutiny. In some ways, Time Warner Cable has been working toward operating more like its potential acquirer, and its success bodes well for Charter's fourth-quarter numbers.
Charter is coming off a Q3 when it grew revenue by 7.2% while adding 12,000 cable customers and 131,000 broadband users. The company posted $0.48 in earnings per share in Q3, and there is little reason to believe Q4 will be very different. The year-end period was very much a business as usual quarter for the company, where it worked to keep its nose clean while being under the FCC microscope.
It would be a surprise if Charter reported anything other than a gain in broadband customers in line or even slightly improved over its Q3 numbers and a small gain or decline in cable customers. That would fall in line with broad industry trends where Internet subscriptions have been growing while cable has been in a slight decline.
The waiting is the hardest part
Barring any major surprises, this should be a ho-hum report and earnings call from Charter. Its Q4 really does not affect long-term investors because the company as it exists for the reporting period won't be the one it becomes going forward. Charter isn't Comcast, where a major customer-service scandal could rear its ugly head. It's a generally steady company with a decent (though not great) relationship with its customers.
What you can take out of the company's Q4 results is how it has managed its way through changes to the cable and broadband industries. Its potential acquisition outperformed industry expectations in Q4, especially when it came to cable customers. If Charter can do that or perform as expected -- a slight dip in cable with a gain in broadband -- then it bodes well for New Charter and what lies ahead.