A Tale of Four Calls

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I spent a lot of time on the phone last week, with the CEOs and other key executives from four big publicly traded MSOs.

They wouldn't remember it, though. The calls actually were in listen-only mode on my end, and actually they were more like Webcasts than phone calls. OK, I listened in some second-quarter Webcasts.

They're actually a pretty good source of free entertainment (aside from the cost of the T-1 line or cable modem you listen to them on). They all were different, although the Cox call Wednesday and the Comcast call Thursday were similarly ebullient.

Cox CFO Jimmy Hayes actually said that out of 34 conference calls Cox had held since going public in 1995, on this one he declared this past quarter the best one ever financially for Cox.

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, who'd publicly set subscriber gains as his top post-AT&T Broadband priority, got to point out that in a typically dismal quarter in terms of college students and other transients disconnecting, Comcast actually gained basic subscribers. The gain was 12,100 basics — versus a net loss of 123,000 basics, on a combined basis, a year ago.

The gains actually were all in former AT&T Broadband systems, the former source of horrific losses.

Cox executives seemed to spend a lot more time answering questions — with typically stat-laden replies — while Comcasters preferred to tell the story themselves in detail and not say all that much in the Q&A.

Just different styles, one supposes, although Comcast has a lot more it can't talk about, like maybe bidding on Vivendi assets, or maybe cutting some new deals with Time Warner Cable now that the IPO seems to be off.

Cox folks don't get questions like that — just ones like how long will it be until they offer phone service in all of their markets. Actually, they didn't give a hard answer to that, but said Internet technology will cut the time it took to get to 40% of the footprint (six years) and CTO Chris Bowick predicted market expansion, using Internet-protocol gear next year.

The guys who really can't talk a lot about a lot of things are Charter CEO Carl Vogel and company. Justice Department investigation, tender offer being tweaked — sorry, no questions on that. Charter did have some reasonable numbers to point to, like gaining high-speed data subs, although disconnects rose too. But Vogel conceded Charter has been "fairly stingy" with marketing funds this year, enhancing cash flow but apparently contributing to a loss of 41,000 basic subs in the quarter. Overall, Charter's call wasn't as sunny as the first two.

Insight's came last, on Friday morning. Their seasonally slow results didn't provide much to crow about — the first analyst report I saw called them "disappointing" — but there were some items of interest. Notably, Insight raised rates in June and July, and in Louisville increased the prices on digital to what's charged elsewhere. Satellite rivals pounced with what looked like targeted offers, COO Kim Kelly said. She said Insight has some responses in mind –—short of a price war — but wouldn't "talk about it on the phone, because I think those guys have dialed in."

Word has gotten around about these calls.

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