That's the view coming out of Wall Street this morning following a Bloomberg report that the country's largest cable TV service provider, which also owns NBCUniversal, has been securing the rights to launch an online pay-TV service similar to AT&T's (T) - Get Report DirecTV Now and Dish Network's (DISH) - Get Report Sling TV. Comcast CEO Brian Roberts has said in the past that securing national rights from other network content owners is something the company would do.
And for good reason.
As the internet allows for broader competition between broadband providers historically tied to a given coverage area, operating a multichannel online pay-TV platform will be essential. Even though it might not be all that profitable, according to Deutsche Bank media analyst Bryan Kraft.
"Given the beginning of a proliferation of [online pay-TV services], we see video distribution as a business whose price will, over time, be driven down to marginal cost while broadband will remain a healthy business with strong returns," Kraft said in an investor note published Monday. "While we, like Comcast, don't see out-of-footprint video as an attractive business opportunity, we think Comcast is preparing to remain a leader in the video business by at least charting a path to achieving national scale (and perhaps international scale)."
In other words, cover your bases.
Like most cable TV operators, Comcast has rights to carry networks such as CBS (CBS) - Get Report and AMC Networks (AMCX) - Get Report only within its coverage area. That footprint, to use industry jargon, includes areas such as its home base of Philadelphia as well as Boston, Chicago and Washington. By acquiring national rights, Comcast conceivably could offer an online streaming service in New York and Los Angeles.
Negotiations for those rights, Bloomberg reported, were made in larger discussions with programming partners about existing carriage fees for including networks in its pay-TV service. In the case of CBS and Disney's (DIS) - Get Report ESPN, existing carriage deals don't expire until 2020, thereby requiring a renegotiation for expanding national rights.
The question for Comcast, which wasn't immediately available for comment, is whether such a service would make financial sense. Over the past few years, Comcast has had great success adding cable TV customers through the rollout of its X1 set-top box, widely accepted as the industry's best. The average Comcast customer pays $150.58 per month, a 3.9% increase from the fourth quarter of 2015, the company reported in January.
While online pay-TV services are gaining subscribers, their total pales in comparison with the roughly 94 million subscribers nationally who have cable or satellite TV. The costs of operating such a platform combined with the licensing fees makes them a low-profit business on their own, Barclays analyst Kannan Venkateshwar said in an investor note Monday.
Additionally, the market for online pay-TV is getting crowded. Alphabet (GOOGL) - Get Report plans to launch YouTube TV in the coming weeks, while Hulu has plans to offer a multichannel streaming service as part of its existing platform. The wave of online pay-TV services are an effort by pay-TV operators and network owners to offset the overall decline in subscribers. The largest pay-TV providers, representing about 95% of the market, lost about 795,000 subscribers in 2016, according to industry consultancy Leichtman Research Group.
"We think a standalone out-of-footprint video product is unlikely to have attractive returns for legacy providers ... given the cost to acquire and service these customers," Venkateshwar said. "In our opinion, video is increasingly a way for service providers to get consumers into a relationship, but the returns are likely to be dictated by the ability to cross-sell other products."
And one of those products is wireless service.
Comcast has been famously reluctant to get into wireless. For years, Comcast observers have speculated that the company would buy T-Mobile US (TMUS) - Get Report or Sprint (S) - Get Report , but it never did. Instead, in September, Roberts said Comcast would take advantage of a existing deal to use Verizon's wireless spectrum to sell mobile service to customers within its footprint.
At some point, Comcast would want to have the option of selling a digital pay-TV offering to wireless customers. Roberts said the mobile service would be available in mid-2017. When and if an online pay-TV service follows remains to be seen.