Painting an Accurate Picture

Though the cable industry saw no significant deals over the last 12 months, our annual list of the 100 largest cable systems has undergone some major changes, with many new systems and executives making the list and some familiar faces disappearing.

The changes reflect not so much a shift in the business as a decision to revamp the list so that it more accurately portrays the state of cable. Earlier versions of the list included large clusters of systems that made up regional operations. This time around, wherever possible, they have been broken down into smaller units. As such, it provides an inside look at 100 top local cable executives and the systems they run.

As a result, 20 new systems made the list this year, providing data on a number of metropolitan areas.

The list will likely provoke debate over what exactly constitutes a cable system. Unfortunately, it is not possible to list systems by a single franchise area or DMA. Even if that data were available, it wouldn’t reflect the way most local systems are managed. Some systems encompass relatively large operations that cover whole states; others cover single cities or metropolitan areas that more closely match a traditional definition of a system. Either way, the list is designed to reflect how the local systems are organized, not just subscriber counts for a single franchise area or DMA.

As in earlier years, tighter corporate control over local systems has an impact on the data we were able to collect. Adelphia Communications Corp. does not release subscriber data on a system level — forcing us to rely on estimates for our ranking. Three major operators — Comcast Corp., Charter Communications Inc. and Insight Communications Co. — do not release the penetration data that we had been able to collect in the past, and Cox Communciations Inc. agreed to provide the data for only one system. As a result only 18 systems reported penetration data, a significant drop from last year.

Even so, this year’s list reveals much about the state of the industry. Operators continue to boost digital penetration rates: Of those who supplied data, 94.4% had digital penetration rates of over 30%, up from 68.4% last year. Time Warner Cable Los Angeles led the category with a 72% digital penetration rate, followed by Cox Orange County/Palos Verdes.

Much slower growth was seen in basic subscriber numbers. Of the 80 systems that are comparable with last year, 31 showed declines in their basic subscriber counts and 30 showed increases. Another 19 systems kept their subscriber counts virtually unchanged.

On the executive side, there are many new faces on the list. Of the 99 executives listed this year, 36 are new and 63 are returning. There are 76 men and 23 women, a significant shift from last year when there were 81 men and 19 women.

And a few systems dropped off the list. The threshold for making the top 100 increased to 111,000, up from 92,000 last year.