• Comcast and Netflix in the Context of Cord-Cutting

    There's likely no hotter debate in the online video world right now than how big "cord-cutting" - the concept of consumers dropping their pay TV service in favor of online-only options - might be in the future.  To the extent that cord-cutting or "cord-shaving" trends develop (and despite some recent research findings, these are still highly uncertain), no company is in a better position to both drive and benefit from them than Netflix.

    Netflix cannot be considered a pure substitute for today's pay TV services for many reasons, primarily because there's no live or sports programming, and also because it offers just a fraction of what's available on TV. However, Netflix can be considered a key building block for consumers motivated to cobble together multiple sources to meet their video needs (for example, viewers can augment Netflix with Hulu/YouTube, over the air antenna, iTunes/Amazon downloads, out-of-home viewing, etc.). This is the more likely scenario for would-be cord-cutters than a one-for-one replacement of current pay TV services.

    If cord-cutting or cord-shaving did take off, then Comcast, with the largest number of video subscribers of any pay TV provider, would likely be hurt the most (though as the largest broadband ISP, it could actually benefit on that side of its business as users upgrade for more bandwidth).

    In this context, and with both companies reporting their Q1 '10 earnings in the past week, it's interesting to look at their performance to consider what to expect going forward.

    The natural place to start the comparison is purely the number of video subscribers each company has. Netflix has been on a tear, more than doubling the number of its paying subscribers from just under 7 million in Q1 '07 to just under 14 million in Q1 '10. The biggest chunk of that growth has come in the last 2 quarters alone, when Netflix has added 2.9 million subscribers. Conversely, in that same 3 year time period, Comcast has lost approximately 1.5 million video subscribers to end Q1 '10 at 23.5 million. At the current rates, Netflix could have approximately as many subscribers as Comcast by end of next year.

    However, the companies' subscribers are very different. On the one hand, Netflix is seeing its strongest growth in its least expensive $8.99/mo tier, which is a compelling value since it also allows unlimited streaming. Netflix is using this tier to entice many new subscribers and also to defend itself against $1 DVD rental competition from Redbox. As a result its average revenue per subscriber is declining. On the other hand, Comcast has been steadily increasing the penetration of additional services its subscribers take, primarily through "triple play" bundling of video with voice and broadband Internet access. This is reflected in the growth of its average revenue per video subscriber from $107.20 in Q1 '08 to almost $123 in Q1 '10. This, plus other lines of business like advertising, business services and its own programming networks contributes to Comcast generating $9.2 billion in revenue in Q1 '10 compared with Netflix's $494 million.

    The flip side of Comcast's drive to increase its ARPU is that it potentially opens up higher cord-cutting interest. Some subscribers who open their billing statements to see a monthly tab in the $200 or more range when premium channels, DVRs, additional set-top boxes, VOD purchases and the like are all added up are inevitably going to get "sticker shock" and start asking the question how much value do they get from their cable subscription? While the cable industry has always made a strong argument that the sheer volume of programming available each month makes it a great subscription value, my sense is that with the massive number of alternative viewing options consumers are now accessing, it's not pure volume that matters, but rather actual cable use, in particular relative to other options.

    For example, consider a home with a couple of teenagers who rarely watch live TV any more and instead spend a lot of their free time on Facebook, YouTube, Hulu, etc. Say Dad is only a light sports fan and doesn't consider ESPN or Fox Sports essential, and has long since moved the bulk of his news consumption to online sources. He loves Jon Stewart, but is content to catch his jokes online the next day when he has a few minutes of downtime at work. He also loves some of the broadcast network shows, but can watch them sporadically on Hulu. Mom is into the shows on HBO, plus some favorites on ad-supported cable channels like USA, Bravo and Food Network. Still, she's been having less time lately to actually watch these recently and has also started to gravitate to back seasons that are now available on Netflix. Since the family's Nintendo/Blu-ray player/Roku allows streaming to the TV, it's as simple as cable to use. Net it all out and the family's cable usage has declined markedly in the last couple of years.

    Does this example sound familiar to you? I believe this is the kind of situation where cord-cutting or cord-shaving starts to gain some interest. Families faced with the real opportunity to save a few bucks each month, though with clearly reduced program options and convenience, will have decisions to make in the coming years. How they make them and how Comcast, Netflix and others react will have huge implications on their performance.

    What do you think? Post a comment now (no sign-in required).