Cable Ops: It’s Time to Stop Losing Subs

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After a decade of basic-video
subscriber losses, two top cable executives
said last week they were placing a new emphasis
on video customer growth, efforts
that some analysts said could be successful.

Cable video customers have been on the
decline since 2001, when the industry peaked
at 66.9 million subscribers, according to the
National Cable & Telecommunications Association.
Between 2001 and 2009, MSOs shed
about 4.8 million video subscribers, ending
2009 with 62.1 million, the NCTA has said.

‘NOT ACCEPTABLE’

Time Warner Cable chairman and CEO Glenn
Britt says he is fed up with consistent declines.

“It is not acceptable to me to continue to
slowly lose video customers every year,” Britt
said at last week’s Deutsche Bank Media & Telecom
conference in Palm Beach, Fla. “That has
been going on for too long. We’re going
to put renewed energy against
that both in the product space and
in marketing, to see if we can slow
that down.”

Britt offered little in the way of
tactical details. But Time Warner
Cable has experimented with different
programming packages, including
the TV Essentials video tier
aimed at the low end.

Britt said TWC also is taking
a different approach to pricing.
“We’re offering a large set of different
products, services and packages
and offerings in different
geographies. We’re not treating
people like one-size-fits-all.”

Time Warner Cable lost about
449,000 basic-video subscribers in
2010, up from a 210,000 decline in
2009. Some analysts, though, think
basic video subscribership there
could flatten out or even rise slightly
in the next three years.

Comcast did better than was forecasted,
losing 135,000 basic-video
customers in the fourth quarter
when consensus estimates were for
a loss of 206,000. Comcast Cable
Communications president Neil
Smit said he’d also like to see the
losses reversed.

“I hate losing subs,” he said at the
Deutsche Bank conference. “I just
think it is something that we should always be
achieving to improve on.”

Miller Tabak media analyst David Joyce
expects video losses to continue at cable
providers, but said “they are trending in the
right direction.”

Joyce’s models have TWC inching towards
positive subscriber growth by 2013, adding
15,000 customers that year, followed by around
40,000 additions per year after that.

Comcast lost about 757,000 basic-video customers
in 2010, but Joyce predicts video losses
will be cut to about 100,000 by 2013.

Big caveats concern the state of the economy
and the housing market.

The housing market has shown signs of
bottoming out. Average monthly new housing
starts were up 9% to 585,000 in 2010 from
535,000 in 2009, according to Forecastchart.com. That is still roughly one-third of pre-recession
levels of about 1.3 million new homes
per month.

Wunderlich Securities analyst Matt Harrigan
said “if [cable] grows, it has to be
[through] household formation.” He has the
cable industry continuing to lose subscribers
at least through the first half of the decade.
He estimates that Time Warner Cable
will lose more than 300,000 customers in
2014, with Comcast losing about 26,000 video
customers in the same time frame.

STANCHING THE BLEEDING

“Britt is right, they do have to check basicgrowth
erosion, but they don’t need to turn it
positive, they just need to make it less of an ulcer,”
Harrigan said.

Sanford Bernstein cable and satellite analyst
Craig Moffett estimates Time Warner Cable’s
basic-subscriber losses will drop by half in
2011, to 234,000, falling to zero by 2014.

Moffett predicted that Comcast’s losses
will decline to 205,000 in 2011 and level off to
68,000 thereafter.

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