There’s a shadow over cable-TV giant Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA) these days.
An unanswered question is pressuring the company’s stock …
… despite attractive profit metrics …
… and continued strong cash generation.
Just to be clear, we’re not talking about the issue of whether antitrust regulators will sign off on Comcast’s ambitious $13.75 billion purchase of a controlling stake in General Electric’s (NYSE:GE) NBC-Universal subsidiary. That deal, which the nation’s biggest cable provider announced almost a year ago, will close within a couple months.
No, the troubling question surrounding Comcast and its industry rivals is more fundamental. It asks, impolitely: Is the Internet poised to wreck cable-TV’s lush margins, the same way it has already trashed profits in the once-lucrative music and newspaper industries?
With online video-entertainment options proliferating, a small but growing number of consumers, known in the industry as “cord cutters,” are jettisoning cable in favor of free or cheap Internet TV alternatives. They stream movies via Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX) and watch TV shows on Hulu. And with help from a new generation of set-top gadgets like Roku and AppleTV, cord-cutters are finding it easier every day to route online content to their home TV.
Right now, you still must be something of a techie gearhead to fully cut the cord. Also, many sports fans won’t act as long as football and other major sports remain largely locked up by broadcast and cable. For now, those two factors are holding the potentially profit-busting trend back a bit. But over time, neither issue seems likely to protect the cable guys from the disruptive power of the Web.
Life used to be simpler for Comcast. For decades, cable-TV was basically a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. Comfortable in the knowledge their couch-potato customers would pony up whatever amount showed up on their monthly tab, cable companies pushed price hikes through like clockwork.
Life remained good, even after satellite-based competition from DirecTV Group (DTV) and Dish Network (NASDAQ:DISH) began to tighten things up a bit. Industry growth naturally slowed as pay-TV market penetration matured and maxed out. Not many homes left to wire.
Still, even while a small fraction of its video customers is starting to head for the exits, Comcast’s overall subscriber base continues to expand, thanks to the company’s ongoing growth as a provider of high-speed Internet and telephone service. Those offerings generate solid revenue per customer, and by “bundling” those services with cable TV, the company has succeeded in holding many viewers who might otherwise have defected. Recently, that has supported a nice dividend.
Still, with Comcast and rivals like Time Warner Cable (TWC) and Charter Communications (NASDAQ:CHTR) scrambling to fend off competition from video-only satellite companies and “triple-play” bundling rivals such as AT&T’s (NYSE:T) “U-verse,” cord-cutting represents a growing threat from below.
In the third quarter, Comcast lost an eye-catching 275,000 basic-TV subscribers, and Time Warner lost 155,000. Charter and CableVision lost smaller numbers, bringing the total loss for those four providers to over half a million. (Cox, the number three player, is closely held and doesn’t report such data.)
Comcast officials urge us to please remain calm. The viewer dropoff is a transient phenomenon, they say, in which households damaged by the economy’s downturn are dropping cable to cut expenses. If they’re correct, then a firming economy will lift Comcast’s softened revenue growth.
If they’re, um, not correct about cord cutting, however, then the cable sector will in future years face margin pressure it’s never before encountered. And even though proprietary Ycharts software suggests Comcast shares are currently underpriced, investors should think twice.