multichannel connect
careers
all access

On The Money

Sometimes a Cigar is truly just a cigar.

8/28/2007 11:31 AM

It was a pretty innocuous suggestion, a throw-away comment really, during a conversation with a stock picker a couple of weeks ago.

“Hey, did you see Time Warner’s announcement that they’ll release earnings on Nov. 7?”

“Sure,” I said. “So what?”

“But they usually release earnings on the first of the month,” the stock picker replied. “Maybe they’re waiting a week because they don’t want to take the big stock hit that normally follows earnings.”

That seemed pretty logical to me. The stock market has been relentlessly unforgiving lately when it comes to cable companies. Stock prices of the six publicly traded cable companies are down 4.2% overall so far this year – the decline grows to 10% if you back out Cablevision Systems, which is up mainly because of the privatization bid for the company. And after the last spate of earnings calls earlier this month, the sector took another big hit.  This despite consistent double-digit revenue and cash flow growth. And though subscriber growth was slower than expected, it should have come as little surprise given that the industry has been telling the market for years that the second quarter is seasonally weak as snowbirds and college students disconnect service.

Time Warner has traditionally been the second big cable company to report earnings – Comcast is usually the first. So who could blame them for wanting to wait a week?

Time Warner had a very simple explanation for the earnings date. Nov. 7 is the first Wednesday of the month. Time Warner always reports earnings on the first Wednesday of the month.

It didn’t take much effort to figure that out – looking back on third quarter earnings releases for the past three years, Time Warner has reported its third quarter results on Nov. 1, 2006; Nov. 2, 2005; and Nov. 3, 2004. All Wednesdays. And the same is true for first, second and fourth quarter results – all released on Wednesdays.

It’s no big deal really, but it just got me thinking about how everybody – not just reporter-types like me – is looking for the hidden agenda, the smoking gun, the tiny tidbit of info that leads to the larger, broader disaster scenario, especially when it comes to cable operators.

Now, I am by no means discouraging skepticism. And I have more often than not been on the receiving end of less than truthful information from cable companies.

But there is a point when the conspiracy theories are just, well, theories. And bad ones at that.

Remember last year, when a CableLabs report was leaked to the press and there were stories that the industry was heading for another massive rebuild?

It turned out that the “rebuild” was just a worst-case scenario. The report’s main thrust was that cable wouldn’t need to rebuild its network for years.

Sanford Bernstein cable and satellite analyst Craig Moffett had an interesting take on the conspiracy theory mindset in one of his weekly tongue-in-cheek Media Blasts earlier this month. Entitled “The Deep Distrust of All Things Comcast,” Moffett looks back at how the market has reacted to Comcast chairman and CEO Brian Roberts’ comments on everything from buying Sprint to abandoning the analog tier to go all digital (No and no, by the way). But despite Roberts’ denials, the market was sure that he was lying.

“Actually, it has never been entirely obvious to us why Comcast is mentioned in every (every!!!) take-over rumor that crosses the tape,” Moffett wrote. “Or why investors always (always!!!) seem to assume that Brian Roberts is lying. About everything. Maybe, just maybe, Brian’s telling the truth (gasp). That he is actually genuinely concerned about keeping a conservative balance sheet. That he means it when he says "Comcast is strategically complete." That he really believes wireless doesn’t fit. That the plant doesn’t need to be rebuilt.”

And maybe, just maybe, sometimes a cigar is truly just a cigar.

September