• Despite Acceleration of Cord-Cutting, Top Analyst is Bullish on Cable in 2016

    Cord-cutting accelerated in 2015. Once again, It dominated headlines about the pay-TV industry, portending its imminent demise, as SVOD awareness and original content investments skyrocketed. But despite all of that, top Wall Street analyst Craig Moffett of MoffettNathanson (who has participated in many VideoNuze events) issued a bullish note this morning on cable TV operators’ prospects in 2016.

    Craig’s analysis highlights the subtleties of the pay-TV industry’s dynamics that are too often glossed over in generic media coverage about cord-cutting’s ascent. The nub of his argument is that while the overall pay-TV industry is indeed pressured in many ways, cable operators’ distinct product and technology advantages vs. its primary competitors (satellite and telcos) have led to cable operators taking market share, helping insulate them from macro issues.

    This dynamic keeps reminding me of the famous “you can’t outrun a bear” joke (2 guys camping, a bear emerges, the first guy quickly puts on his sneakers, and the second guy says “what are you doing, you can’t outrun a bear!” and the first guy says “I don’t need to, I just need to outrun you!”). In case it’s not readily apparent, the “bear” is all of the negatives buffeting the pay-TV industry, cable is the first guy and satellite/telco is the second guy.

    Metaphorically speaking, many cable operators have been putting on their sneakers for years and now that the bear is upon the industry, they’re well ahead and staying relatively safe. Craig calls out the strategic investments cable has made in expanding the capacity of their broadband networks and developing cloud-based programming guides and user interfaces, both differentiators vs. satellite/telco. As evidence of the latter, in my post on Comcast’s Q3 ’15 video results (which were the best in 9 years of third quarters), I explained the significant role the slick X1 set-top box played. Comcast has ramped up X1 deployment to 40K boxes per day.

    Craig is now forecasting that when the full-year 2015 results are reported by cable operators, it will likely be their best year for video subscribers in 10 years. To keep things in perspective, his target for cable video subscribers is still a loss of around 514K. But that would be half of 2014’s 1.2 million subscriber loss and just one-third the loss experienced in 2013. This contrasts with an expected video subscriber loss of 560K for satellite and a measly 118K gain for telcos, approximately 1/10th of what they added in 2014. I recently wrote that Verizon is sounding a lot like it actually wants to quit the video business and focus just on wireless. Meanwhile, in 2015 Dish began obfuscating its satellite losses by lumping in Sling TV subscriber gains (which it won’t specify).

    While the market share shifts in video are recent, the shifts in broadband are longstanding. Cable has been converting telco’s slower DSL subscribers for years. Although this pool was once thought to be limited, Craig observes that even though cable now has 59.6 million broadband subscribers (18% more than 3 years ago), it actually grew subscribers at a faster rate in Q3 ’15 (6.4%) than it has in many quarters. So much for the law of large numbers. Cable is benefiting from its more robust broadband services, whose benefits are only becoming truly clear as online video usage has soared, requiring more in-home capacity. In short, cable now owns the broadband business in the U.S.

    Cable’s video and broadband growth have both become very compelling narratives in spite of the constant overhang of cord-cutting. To be sure, as SVOD offerings have become more robust, more people are opting out of expensive multichannel bundles than ever (I continue to believe so-called “entertainment-only” viewers are the most vulnerable, and this trend was clearly reflected in ESPN’s disproportionate loss of 7 million subscribers in the past 2 years).

    But the pay-TV industry is increasingly looking like a winners and losers story, with cable in the former category and satellite/telco in the latter. The bear is growling at the industry louder than ever, but cable appears to be sprinting ahead, to relative safety, at least for now.