Cord-cutting is rampant and the future of the set-top box is uncertain, but you wouldn’t know it at Comcast Corp. New pay-TV customers are flocking to the Philadelphia cable giant by the tens of thousands, and analysts say its new Xfinity X1 cable box and operating system deserve part of the credit.
“Management continues to reinvigorate the product set by rolling out X1 double/triple play starting at $80/month and $90/month, respectively,” Amy Yong, an analyst with Macquarie, said in a recent research note.
When Comcast reports first-quarter 2016 earnings on Wednesday morning, Macquarie expects the company to report a net addition of 32,000 pay-TV subscribers. Marci Ryvicker, a senior analyst for Wells Fargo, has an even rosier estimate at 35,000 subscribers. That’s a phenomenal increase over the same three-month period last year when Comcast lost 8,000 pay-TV subscribers. If the estimates are correct, it would mark the first time in two years that Comcast reported video subscriber growth for two quarters in a row.
The projected growth is a good sign for Comcast, although it hardly signifies an end to cord-cutting as a broader trend. Collectively, the top 13 pay-TV providers lost 380,000 video subscribers last year, 36,000 of which were attributed to Comcast, according a report from Leichtman Research Group.
Still, the Philadelphia cable and media giant has managed to slow the bleeding with aggressive deals for new signups, a revamped customer service strategy and advancements for the X1. The progress comes at a time when U.S. pay-TV operators are facing potential new rules from the Federal Communications Commission, which wants to force cable and satellite companies to open up their programming feeds to third parties, a move supporters say would increase competition in the set-top box market. The proposal has faced pushback from cable and telecom trade groups but won praise from consumer advocates and many prominent politicians, including President Barack Obama.
Comcast, in turn, has taken recent steps toward demonstrating the kind of innovation the FCC claims is not happening fast enough. Last week, it launched a “partner program” that expanded the range of devices customers can use to access its cable service without the need to lease a set-top box. Mark Hess, a senior vice president for Comcast Cable, said in a blog post on April 20 that the government should stay out of the way and let the industry take care of itself.
“The FCC’s proposed set-top box mandate threatens to undermine this highly dynamic marketplace, create substantial costs and consumer harms, and will take years to develop — only to be likely outdated by the time it reaches the marketplace — all in an effort to achieve what apps are already delivering for consumers,” Hess wrote.
Comcast will deliver first-quarter financial results on Wednesday before the opening bell. A conference call with Brian Roberts, the company’s chief executive, is scheduled for 8:30 a.m. EDT.
Analysts polled by Thomson Reuters expect mixed results, with earnings per share of 79 cents, compared with 81 cents for the same period last year. Quarterly net income is projected at $1.97 billion, compared with $2.06 billion last year. Revenue is expected to rise 4.4 percent to $18.64 billion, compared with $17.85 billion in the year-earlier period.
The full picture is muddied by Comcast’s NBCUniversal unit, where first-quarter revenue is expected to fall 2.6 percent to $6.71 billion, according to an estimate from Ryvicker. The NBC broadcasting network faced tough comparisons to last year when it aired the Super Bowl. As a result, its February prime-time ratings for 2016 declined 63 percent in the advertiser-coveted 18-to-49-year-old demographic, according to Nielsen data analyzed by the research firm MoffettNathanson. Total-day viewership fell 11 percent across NBCUniversal’s suite of cable networks during that same month, the firm found.
While Universal Pictures had a phenomenal summer 2015 with hits like “Jurassic World,” “Furious 7” and “Straight Outta Compton,” some of its first-quarter 2016 releases did not land as well. “Ride Along 2,” released in January, had a strong opening weekend, but then fell off significantly in its second week. The Coen brothers comedy “Hail, Caesar!” also struggled to find an audience, grossing only $30 million at the domestic box office on a $22 million production budget, according to Box Office Mojo. MoffettNathanson estimates Universal Pictures’ box office declined 34 percent in the first quarter, compared with last year.
Comcast shares closed down 0.16 percent Monday at $61.