March (Conference) Madness: Time For Cable CEOs to Once Again Defend Their Business

wikimedia commons
(Image credit: wikimedia commons)

 The spring conference season is upon us, a time of new beginnings, when nature and CEOs of major media companies show the world just what they have been hiding under their drab little husks for the past four months. For nature, the metamorphosis bursts forth in an explosion of color, new life and possibilities. For cable CEOs, it comes in a series of presentations and fireside chats with the investment community to prove their businesses aren’t going to die this year.

Investors have been lining up for cable’s funeral for decades. The industry’s death rattle supposedly began in the nineties with competitive threats from satellite TV and telcos. Now streaming video, direct-to-consumer offerings that bypass the traditional bundle and fixed wireless access service that is expected to steal away broadband customers are expected to deliver the fatal blow. But instead, every year cable survives. It weathered the satellite onslaught, the multiple attempts by AT&T to weasel its way into the video business, and by the looks of things, it is preparing itself to ride out the latest storms. 

I’m not saying cable, or any industry, is invulnerable. Taking even a cursory look at the industry is proof that the business is nothing like it was a decade ago. But unlike buggy whips and the Betamax, whenever the collective consciousness began to stray, cable operators have for the most part managed to figure out a way to make themselves attractive again to consumers. 

In the past century, cable pushed back video competition by introducing more channels, more choices and better pictures through digital and later HDTV offerings. Later, competitive wireline phone offerings, high-speed internet service and in the past few years, mobile service have helped the industry not only survive, but thrive. Now cable companies have twice as many broadband customers as video subscribers, and mobile service, once thought of as merely a retention tool, is becoming a real threat to traditional carriers. In the meantime, cable continues to invest in the business, build out fiber networks and reinvent itself.

Even though those moves are far from secret, operators continue to make the seasonal rounds, reminding investors that although they may not be the latest thing, they are what makes that latest thing work.

Investor Conference Rites of Spring

March is the traditional beginning of the spring conference season (I know spring doesn’t officially begin until March 20, but it was 74 degrees in New York this week, for gosh sake), with Morgan Stanley's Technology, Media & Telecom conference on March 7, and Deutsche Bank Securities hosting the next media get-together on March 14. There is expected to be a bit of a reprieve in April, followed by MoffettNathanson’s Media & Communications conference and J.P. Morgan’s Global Technology Media & Communications conference slated for May. Evercore ISI should wind down the spring season with its TMT event expected sometime in June, although others could be sprinkled in between. And then the fall season starts.   

Already, CEOs of the top three publicly held cable companies have hit the conference circuit and have had to reassure investors that: Yes, they still intend to add broadband subscribers; no, they haven’t given up on video quite yet; and yes, mobile service is on the path to becoming profitable.

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts

Brian Roberts (Image credit: Comcast)

Comcast chairman and CEO Brian Roberts kicked off the spring season with his March 7 appearance at the Morgan Stanley conference, He spent most of his time telling the investment community that while broadband growth is indeed slowing down, it has lots of runway ahead of it. He pointed to four areas where he sees Comcast can boost broadband growth: expanding its footprint; competing more aggressively; bundling with other products like wireless; and growing its business services reach.

Comcast has been expanding its reach to about 1 million more homes per year within its footprint through edge-out programs. This year, he expects that expansion to be even greater, given government initiatives to build out unserved and underserved rural areas. 

“Where it's been uneconomic previously, it will be economic in the future for us to extend our broadband,” Roberts said. “And we're going to compete aggressively to do that.”

Roberts also defended cable broadband against the latest competitive threat — fixed wireless access from the telcos — adding that at the moment it is an inferior product to high-speed data service from cable, reminding the audience again that cable has a history in pushing back competitive threats. 

“We don't take it for granted, but we've seen lower-price, lower-speed offerings before,” Roberts said. “And in the long run, I don't know how viable the [FWA] technology holds up.”

Altice USA CEO Dexter Goei, who has been dealing with a steep drop in his company’s stock price since it lost broadband subscribers in 2021, spent his time at the Morgan Stanley conference reiterating plans to accelerate its fiber network buildout, and hinting about faster speeds becoming available to a wider swath of customers. 

Altice USA CEO Dexter Goei

Dexter Goei (Image credit: Altice USA)

Altice‘s accelerated fiber rollout has been well-documented, and Goei said at Morgan Stanley that it is expected to make a big difference. 

Goei said Altice has been talking about fiber for three years, and the slowdown in deployment has been a combination of permitting and COVID-19 related delays and the company’s inability to “get its own ducks in a row.” But now with a restructured management and a clearer focus,  growth is expected to take hold in 2023.     

“The goal was to reinvigorate distribution, rebrand the company, address some customer service-related issues we were dealing with and make that a one-time investment,” Goei said, which “leads to a nice payback in 2023.”

Goei hinted at “multi-gig” speeds for its Optimum broadband service in the second quarter, stopping short of saying just how fast its offering would be. But the company has said publicly — back in May 2021 at the MoffettNathanson Media & Communications conference — that its goal was to offer 10 Gigabit per second broadband within 18 months.       

On the video side, Charter Communications chairman and CEO Tom Rutledge said there is “more damage to come” regarding continued customer losses, but all is not lost quite yet.

“There’s nothing about the old model that’s really changed, Rutledge said at the Morgan Stanley conference, adding that prices for traditional video service continue to rise, driven by ever-increasing sports rights fees. “There’s nothing to really constrain the cost of live sports in the linear business and that’s still the glue that holds it together. I see that business continuing to get more and more expensive for consumers.”

Eyeing a Mobile Future

Despite the shift toward streaming, Rutledge isn’t expecting the pay TV business to change that much over the next few years. But he echoed Roberts in saying that the mobile/broadband bundle will be the future. And he acknowledged that he often thinks of how cable could eventually aggregate and package streaming services for consumers. 

“The opportunity going forward is to start to reaggregate and use that aggregation to give a better, more cost-efficient consumer experience to more people,” Rutledge said. “We think about that every day and how that might happen. I don’t want to be overly Pollyannaish and say that is about to happen because the current model is still very much in force. I don’t see that disappearing in the next couple of years.”

But Rutledge said Charter is laying the groundwork for that day when it does come, making itself available on apps like Roku, where it is one of the most used applications. He added that nearly 12 million customers access Charter services (broadband-only as well as video) via an app instead of a set-top box.

“The upside is still yet to be realized,” Rutledge said. “The reaggregation is somewhat far away, but we’ve been thinking about how to build a platform that can be used by customers  in a more efficient way.” 

It’s a concept that has been well-documented in this column over the past year, and a place where, whether participants say it aloud or not, the industry is headed. But it is also an example of something that cable has been famous for, at least during the 30 years I’ve been covering it: No matter what gets thrown at it, this industry has managed to adapt. It sounds a lot easier than it is to do, and the landscape is littered with the carcasses of companies that underestimated the resilience of this business. This March and beyond, cable executives will get to remind investors of that fact once again. ■

Mike Farrell

Mike Farrell is senior content producer, finance for Multichannel News/B+C, covering finance, operations and M&A at cable operators and networks across the industry. He joined Multichannel News in September 1998 and has written about major deals and top players in the business ever since. He also writes the On The Money blog, offering deeper dives into a wide variety of topics including, retransmission consent, regional sports networks,and streaming video. In 2015 he won the Jesse H. Neal Award for Best Profile, an in-depth look at the Syfy Network’s Sharknado franchise and its impact on the industry.