Hard Times: Cable Not Immune to Economic Forces
Heartened by President-elect Barack Obama‘s infrastructure spending plan aimed at jump starting the ailing economy, Wall St staged a sizable rally Mon. But workforce cuts at Brightcove and Tribune‘s Chapter 11 Bankruptcy filing in DE proved that downward pressure remains stifling across most US industries, including within typically resilient cable. "I can’t remember an environment like this in my career," said Time Warner Cable pres/CEO Glenn Britt at the UBS conference. The dramatic slowdown in the MSO’s RGU growth rate that commenced in Oct has continued through Nov, he said, while churn has risen slightly and customer connects are ebbing. Accordingly, Britt noted that "as volume of activity goes down, unfortunately we won’t need as many people. So we’ll look at that." Comcast evp, operations Dave Watson joined Britt in recounting increased calls from customers seeking pricing relief. "This is one of those rare occasions when we’ll [have to] become more efficient," said Watson. Still, cable’s breadth of services may better insulate the industry to the roiling economy, even if others’ woes bleed onto its balance sheet. Tribune, for example, owns approx 31% of Food Net and 25% of Comcast SportsNet Chicago, and counts NBCU among its creditors. As Time Warner Cable, Comcast and Cablevision continue to excel with business services, execs said pricing and packaging options have allowed cable to maintain residential growth, albeit slowing. Cablevision has created value packages with video so that "the value of downgrading is low to customers," said COO Tom Rutledge. Watson said Comcast has received help in customer acquisition and retention from its economy video tier, which offers 50 channels for less than $30/month. The MSO has even achieved "very good early stage results" from a series of HD video packages ranging from $115-$180/month, he said. Yes, phone growth has slowed at Comcast and Time Warner Cable, and local ad rev is faltering across cable. But execs said broadband has become a kind of white knight amid a challenging environment. "Broadband may be even more important than TV," said Britt, noting the Clearwire WiMAX jv as a promising opportunity to further hybridize the cable business. Rutledge agreed with the importance of broadband, a view reinforced by Cablevision’s roll out of its own WiFi network. "The Internet, as far as utility, is really something you have to have," said Rutledge.