Wall Street is finally starting to realize there's a storm brewing on the horizon for the nation's biggest cable companies. Cable stocks took a notable dip this week after MoffettNathanson analyst Craig Moffett downgraded the entire cable sector because of worries surrounding cord cutting and streaming video competition. Moffett, who not that long ago used to mock cord cutters for being irrelevant basement dwellers, has seen the light -- more recently noting that 2016's 1.7% decline in traditional cable TV viewers was the biggest cord cutting acceleration on record.
And in a lengthy research note to investors this week, the analyst warned that the cable industry's approach to cord cutting (raising rates and offering horrible customer service while hoping it all works out) simply isn't going to cut it given the competitive threats to come:
"Broadband growth will inevitably slow, and it will likely do so at precisely the same time that video growth rates also come under pressure from OTT substitution," Moffett said in his Tuesday-morning note. "And while cable operators have the pricing power to offset these headwinds via their broadband business, we believe it is likely that investors will (appropriately) apply a somewhat lower terminal growth rate assumption to a business that is achieving its growth through pricing rather than unit growth."
Wall Street and the cable sector's optimism in the face of a massive sector (r)evolution is running out of oxygen, Moffett insists:
"The cable stocks have climbed a wall of worry to get here," Moffett wrote to clients. “But as any mountain climber knows, the higher you go, the thinner the air."
It's an interesting position for Moffett to take, given the fact that for years the analyst breathlessly supported broadband usage caps and overage fees as a fail-safe solution to this problem, once going so far as to declare usage caps "the next generation of communications." Arbitrary and utterly unnecessary usage caps are one trick Comcast has been using to hamstring streaming competitors, while raising prices on broadband to counter any potential TV revenue loss.
For the moment, Comcast has been cushioned from the cord cutting threat by its growing monopoly over fixed-line broadband service. Companies like AT&T and Verizon have shifted their attentions to media and advertising, and other major telcos like Windstream, Frontier, and CenturyLink lack the courage, money or incentive to upgrade their aging DSL lines at any real scale. So in many markets, customers looking for next-gen broadband speeds only have one option: cable. And when they show up, they're forced to sign up for TV services they may not want.
You'd think that a growing broadband monopoly, usage caps, and the government's decision to gut most meaningful oversight of one of the least-competitive sectors in America would have Wall Street stock jocks pretty damn excited. The fact that many of them are still very worried about the cord cutting threat to come -- despite Comcast's immense position of power -- tells you precisely what kind of threat we're looking at.