Comcast Corp., America's biggest cable provider and one of its least-liked companies, seems to have been getting a little love lately. According to the latest earnings statement, the company added 24,000 video customers last quarter and 70,000 during the past six months. After years of slowly losing subscribers to telecommunications competitors, could this be the harbinger of good news for an industry long considered in decline?
The short answer is: probably not, although it would be foolish to write off the company's prospects on that basis.
First, it's important to remember that some or even most of those subscriber gains probably were due to temporary promotions. In one, Comcast has been offering faster Internet and free cable for the same price as standard Internet alone. It would be surprising if Comcast hadn't been able to add subscribers with that kind of deal.
Besides, most Americans aren't permanently abandoning their pay-TV providers for content streamed over the Internet, despite what you may read about "cord-cutting." What we've seen so far is mostly a switch from traditional cable to services such as Verizon Communications Inc.'s FiOS and AT&T Inc.'s U-Verse. The telecoms are the real competition and they have a lot of room to grow.
The cable companies have responded by introducing better set-top boxes, consolidating through acquisitions and adding lucrative high-speed Internet and landline phone subscribers, all while trying to avoid getting squeezed by the content companies. Comcast has been the most successful in the industry at these tasks. Owning a content producer has been helpful: About 55 percent of the total increase in Comcast's first-quarter operating income during the past two years has come from growth in the NBCUniversal division -- even though it brings in less than 40 percent of corporate revenue.
Maybe Comcast's recent performance shows that it knows how to prevent customer defections to the telecom companies through a combination of better prices and a superior television interface. We might know more once Verizon and AT&T give us their first-quarter results.
(Matthew C. Klein is a writer for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter at @M_C_Klein.)
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