Nothing lets you sit back and forget your cares like a good popcorn movie, and the folks at Comcast Corporation have had plenty of climatic diversions to help keep their minds off their troubles this summer. The Philadelphia cable and media giant broke multiple box-office records this year thanks to Universal Pictures, which released one monster hit after another, including “Furious 7,” “Pitch Perfect 2,” “Jurassic World,” “Minions” and “Straight Outta Compton.”
It’s an impressive hot streak that executives will surely tout on Tuesday morning when Comcast reports third-quarter 2015 earnings, but all that great news for the big screen will be tinged with uncertainty and anxiety over the small one. As the current media earnings season gets underway, investors will be watching for any sign of hope that the TV sector is on firmer ground than some analysts have been projecting. Three months ago, an offhand comment from Bob Iger, chief executive of the Walt Disney Company, caused a domino effect that sent media stocks tumbling. In Disney’s second-quarter earnings call, Iger spoke of “modest” declines at ESPN, long perceived as the most valuable cable TV network. His comment sparked concerns that the traditional pay-TV ecosphere is being undone by streaming services and cord-cutting.
“While dark clouds have been hanging over the media sector for a while, 2Q 2015 earnings season will be remembered for the downpour that followed Walt Disney’s earnings call,” Michael Nathanson, senior analyst at MoffettNathanson, wrote in a recent research note.
This is not to say that Comcast had a bad third quarter. Wall Street expects the company to report quarterly net income of $2.01 billion, compared with $1.92 billion for the same three-month period last year. Earnings per share are expected to rise 9.5 percent to 80 cents, compared with 73 cents last year. Quarterly revenue is expected to increase 7.3 percent to $18.08 billion, compared with $16.8 billion last year, according to a poll of analysts from Thomson Reuters.
But questions surrounding the future of TV loom heavily on the horizon. If dinosaurs, fast cars and gangsta rappers convinced moviegoers to spend more money at the theater this summer, advertisers on the TV front were not quite as generous. Domestic national advertising on NBCUniversal’s suite of cable networks was down an estimated 2 percent in the quarter, according to Nathanson. On the broadcast side, things were slightly better, with domestic national advertising up 2 percent.
It’s The Pipes, Stupid
As younger viewers reject the traditional pay-TV model with its bloated bundles and long-term contracts, Comcast has been investing heavily in new ways to reach that increasingly elusive demographic. Earlier this month, NBCUniversal Digital Enterprises unveiled a subscription-based comedy channel called Seeso, which is available for $4 a month on streaming platforms and connected devices.
And in September, the company introduced Watchable, a cross-platform video service that curates content from a number of brands aimed at millennials, including Vice Media, Mic and BuzzFeed. The service was announced less than a month after news that NBCUniversal had made a $200 million equity investment in BuzzFeed as part of a “strategic partnership” between the two entities. “I think this is a way for them to test digital distribution of news and penetrate that younger demo,” Amy Yong, an analyst with Macquarie Securities, told International Business Times at the time.
Comcast, being the only cable company with significant media interests, has to worry about cord-cutting from both sides. Comcast Cable has been steadily losing pay-TV subscribers but has been more than making up for them with new high-speed Internet customers. Either way, it’s still the gatekeeper providing customers with access to the outside world, and that’s what matters most to investors, according to Marci Ryvicker, senior analyst with Wells Fargo Securities.
“It’s that Internet pipe into the home -- no matter how we choose to engage with content (Over the Top, skinny bundles, fat bundles, etc.), we can only do so with terrestrial broadband -- thus many investors seem to agree with our premise that distribution trumps content (for now),” Ryvicker wrote in a recent research note.
According to Yong, Comcast is expected to lose 80,000 pay-TV subscribers in the third quarter but gain 334,000 broadband subscribers. Comcast will report third-quarter financial results on Tuesday before the opening bell. A conference call is scheduled for 8:30 a.m. EDT.