• Comcast Throws Cold Water On HBO OTT's Disruptive Potential

    Following HBO's announcement of HBO OTT last week, a lot of the media coverage has focused on how disruptive it will be to the pay-TV ecosystem. But on today's Comcast Q3 '14 earnings conference call, company executives threw cold water on these prospects, highlighting the challenges and risks that HBO faces in going direct to consumer.

    Responding to analysts' questions, NBCU CEO Steve Burke said:

    "And if you think about it, HBO probably has the most elegant, economically attractive business model of anybody who has ever been in the television business, so it will be interesting and I think challenging for them to go and try to attract new customers into that ecosystem without cannibalizing the existing customers. "

    "The existing customers that are sold through cable and satellite are extremely high margin. So even if they (HBO) sell at $15 sub when they go directly to consumers via the Internet, they've got to be very careful with cannibalization."

    "I don’t think distributing directly to consumers via the Internet is an easy thing to do and I think it’s a voyage, that if you are successful like Netflix, it can be a way to create a lot of value, but it’s not an easy thing to do."

    Burke put his finger on 2 of the key issues I noted in my initial reactions to HBO OTT last week, first, that HBO has a very narrow path to thread with respect to disrupting its existing pay-TV relationships/subscribers and second, that it needs to quickly gain a lot of competencies that Netflix mastered a long-time ago, in order to succeed with HBO OTT.

    Burke also said:

    "It will be interesting to see how that works, but I don’t think they (HBO) are saying we're going over the top of the existing ecosystem, I mean, Time Warner was the company that really created TV Everywhere."

    All of this suggests that, contrary to how cord-cutters and much of the media reacted to HBO OTT over the past week, in the inner circle of pay-TV executives, the reality is that HBO OTT will not be priced, packaged, sold or delivered in a way that is highly disruptive to its partners.

    If anything, Comcast's Q3 results underscored the substantial life that still remains in the multichannel bundle - for operators who invest in technology and execute well. In this regard, Comcast's X1 hybrid set-top box appears to have the early makings of a home run.

    Comcast executives said that 5 million X1 boxes have been deployed in the 2 years since its introduction. Importantly, X1 drives more linear viewing, reduces churn by around 20%, drives up transactional VOD by 20%, as well as additional outlets, and gets twice the DVR penetration of non-X1 subscribers. In short, X1 has become a significant competitive lever against satellite and telco operators. Left unsaid is that X1 is also a great platform for incorporating OTT providers like Netflix.

    This was reflected in the best net video subscriber performance in the third quarter, over the past 7 years. True, video subscribers dropped by 81K, but that was better than the 127K lost in Q3 '13. Analysts MoffettNathanson are so enthusiastic about the results that they envision Comcast actually growing video subscribers again, assuming cord-cutting remains muted.

    No matter how strong video is though, broadband remains Comcast's locomotive. In Q3 '14, Comcast added 315K broadband subscribers vs. 297K in Q3 '13. It's almost certain that in 2015 broadband subscribers will eclipse video subscribers. A year ago Comcast had almost 2.3 million more video subscribers than broadband subscribers, now the gap is down to just under 800K.

    Part of this is attributable to the improvement in Comcast's broadband service. One data point in particular - 50% of its broadband subscribers now get speeds of 50 megabits or higher, which is plenty to support even concurrent video streaming in the home. More than half of its broadband subscribers now also have Comcast's high-end routers, and many of these create hot spots as well.

    In sum, HBO OTT likely won't be nearly as disruptive as many people expect/hope, great hybrid set-tops like X1 are emerging as a key source of competitive advantage, and the multichannel bundle is far from dead, at least for certain operators.