Cable Ops to Come Roaring Out of Q2

As the earnings season rapidly approaches, analysts see a strong second quarter for cable distributors, a combination of continued momentum and benefits from the six-week strike by Verizon Communications employees in April and May.

Comcast is expected to be the first cable operator out of the earnings blocks, releasing its Q2 results on July 27.

Consolidation catalysts Charter Communications and Altice N.V. — Charter completed its acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks on May 18, while Altice finished its purchase of Cablevision Systems on June 21 — are both slated to release results on Aug, 9.

Actual numbers for Verizon — expected to show subscriber declines, or at least slower increases — aren’t expected until July 26, when the telco officially releases results. That hasn’t stopped some analysts from estimating the damage.

Verizon employees walked off the job on April 13 and stayed out until May 27, when a deal was struck that increased hourly wages and avoided pension cuts for nearly 46,000 unionized workers. The six-week standoff ground Fios installations to a crawl, as contractors were brought in to take up the slack.

UBS Securities telecom analyst John Hodulik predicted Verizon would lose about 33,000 Fios subscribers in Q2, compared to a gain of 26,000 customers in the year-ago period.

Verizon has experienced a steady decline in Fios TV customers over the past several three-month periods: it gained about 178,000 customers in 2015, down from 387,000 additions in 2014. But the strike apparently pushed the telco into the red in the second quarter. Hodulik expects the telco to return to positive video subscriber growth in the third and fourth quarters (about 10,000 each), but at a slower pace.

Verizon chief financial officer Fran Shammo has said in the past that total wireline customers, including non-video subscribers, could flirt with negative territory because of the strike. At a Bank of America Merrill Lynch media conference in London in June, Shammo said because most of the strikers were in installations and maintenance, Verizon was in “catch-up mode” and expected broadband additions to be negative in Q2.

Comcast is expected to continue to temper basic-video subscriber losses in Q2, shedding just 10,000 video customers compared with a loss of 69,000 subscribers in the same period in 2015.

In a note to clients, Hodulik said the results were helped by the Verizon strike as well as the transition of former Fios properties in California, Texas and Florida to Frontier Communications, which wasn’t ready to do a lot of subscriber acquisition marketing while absorbing the territories with some 1.2 million Fios customers.

Overall, Hodulik estimated cable operators would lose a collective 500,000 video subscribers in the second quarter, slightly better than a year ago.

Other analysts weren’t quite as optimistic. Morgan Stanley media analyst Ben Swinburne expects Comcast to shed about 24,000 video customers in the quarter, with Charter dropping 86,000. Analysts share an enthusiasm for improvements in the cable sector for the full year, though. Swinburne estimated Comcast and Charter will both end 2016 on a positive basic-video subscriber note, with Comcast adding 100,000 subscribers and Charter adding 58,000 customers.

“We see another strong sub quarter for cable at the expense of its telco/satellite competition,” Swinburne wrote.

Pivotal Research Group CEO and senior media & communications analyst Jeff Wlodarczak reduced his estimates for Q2 subscriber losses at Comcast from 50,000 to 20,000, based on his belief that churn trends continue to be solid and to better reflect the effects of the Verizon strike.

“We expect a solid cable result in the seasonally weak 2Q,” he wrote.