Most Americans recognize Comcast Corp. as the nation’s largest cable-TV provider. But the reality is that after almost a decade of big acquisitions — NBCUniversal and Europe’s Sky — and blistering subscriber gains at Xfinity Internet, Comcast’s U.S. cable-television now comprises just 21% of its global corporate revenue.
That incredibly shrinking cable-TV business was a big takeaway from Comcast’s second-quarter earnings performance on Thursday, when the company’s revenues rose 23.6% to $26.9 billion, mostly because of the contribution of Sky. Comcast acquired the European company for $40 billion in late 2018. Net income fell 3% to $3.1 billion.
Comcast notched another dismal period for U.S. cable TV. The headline number: down 224,000 Xfinity TV subscribers as the cord-cutting woes deepened.
But Wall Street shrugged as Comcast scored 209,000 new Xfinity Internet subscribers in the quarter — on the path to add another million in 2019 — and 9.4% revenue gains. Cable-TV revenue fell 0.6%.
“Comcast is a little like the casino: the house always wins,” said David Goodfriend, president of the telecom lobbying and consulting Goodfriend Group in Washington.
“Comcast is very much a residential broadband business," he added. "They really dominate there. And the reason that is important is that more and more video is migrating to internet-delivered services like Netflix or DirecTV Now.”
Said telecom analyst Craig Moffett of the MoffettNathanson firm in New York City: “If the first thing you think of when you think of Comcast is ‘cable TV,’ then think again. The truth is, cable video is a nothing more sideshow now. Comcast is an [internet service provider] attached to a media and theme parks company.”
In 2011, Comcast bought entertainment conglomerate NBCUniversal — which includes the Universal theme parks, cable networks, and NBC broadcast-television business — from General Electric.
With repeated one million-subscriber years at Xfinity Internet, Comcast has become the broadband gateway to American homes, a gateway through which Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and other streamers will have to pass to reach a show- and movie-watching audience. The raw numbers are these: 27.8 million Comcast broadband subscribers compared with 21.6 million TV subscribers.
Dig deeper into Comcast’s customer metrics and this is what you find: Comcast’s penetration in the high-speed internet market in its franchise areas such as Philadelphia is 47.7%. Said another way, almost half of the homes that Comcast’s wires pass subscribe to Xfinity Internet. And Comcast’s broadband market position has become more concentrated. In early 2017, it was 44.4%.
Comcast’s market penetration for cable television, which faces competition from satellite and streaming, is substantially lower: 37.2%. And weakening. Two years ago, it was 39.9%.
And though the media publicizes the cord-cutting threat to cable TV, Comcast’s transition to internet-related businesses should boost Comcast’s profits over time because it won’t have to pay entertainment companies such as CBS Corp. and Fox Corp. for the rights to distribute their cable channels, Moffett and other analysts say.
Whether this will add up to cheaper prices for consumers is unlikely, as they will pay for an internet service — which can be $80 a month or higher — and monthly subscriptions to sports and entertainment services.
Threats, of course, exist for Comcast. Wireless companies could compete with Comcast, or No. 2 cable operator, Charter Communications, with super-fast 5G services for internet customers.
Amazon has said it would like to offer a satellite-based internet service to Americans. Federal lawmakers could clamp down on Comcast and Charter if they think the companies are too powerful.
But for now, these threats seem far off. So it made sense on Thursday when Comcast CEO Brian Roberts observed on a conference call with analysts: “Video-over-the-internet is more friend than foe. It plays to our strengths.”
Company shares closed yesterday at $44.61, down $0.26 (0.58%), in Nasdaq trading.