It doesn't get any less visible than this.

SeaChange International ( SEAC - Get Report) CEO Bill Styslinger, in a penitent conference call with investors Monday night, allowed that perhaps the company didn't have quite the ability to forecast its revenue as it once thought it did. "I think," he said, "we have to look at how we do our predictions."

Point well taken. Earlier today, SeaChange preannounced that instead of the revenue of $30 million to $32 million it had been expecting for its fiscal fourth quarter ended Jan. 31, it would be reporting revenue of about $24 million. Instead of the 5-cent per-share gain expected by analysts surveyed by First Call/Thomson Financial, SeaChange expects a loss of 7 cents to 10 cents per share.

The news sent SeaChange's shares plummeting Monday. The stock hit a 52-week low of $13.88 before recovering somewhat to close at $19.73, down $5.83, a 23% loss for the day.

It was no wonder investors took the news badly. SeaChange, which sells, among other products, systems that local cable TV operators use to deliver video-on-demand, spent a lot of time reiterating its confidence in its quarterly forecasts. It reiterated them after video-on-demand rival Concurrent Computer ( CCUR) preannounced in late December, with Styslinger telling TheStreet.com that it was "irrational" for the market to conclude from Concurrent's performance that SeaChange might stumble, too. The company again reiterated its guidance at a meeting with analysts in mid-January.

SeaChange's preannouncement reflects the specific market conditions faced by companies whose customers are cable television systems. But on a larger scale, the shortfall illustrates the increasing difficulty that many technology companies have in maintaining any sort of visibility into their future results, a subject covered in a recent TSC article.

In the conference call, Styslinger explained that the primary revenue shortfall came in SeaChange's video-on-demand business, the sector in which many SeaChange investors see its biggest promise. Instead of $10 million video-on-demand revenue for the quarter, the company reaped about half of that amount, he said.

The company, says Styslinger, was hopeful "right up until the last minute" that it would be receiving a large order before the quarter closed, from a customer that Styslinger declined to specify. The company's residential video-on-demand customers include some of the largest cable operators in the nation, including Comcast ( CMCSK), Cox Communications and AOL Time Warner ( AOL), which demonstrated SeaChange's technology during its analysts' day last week.

The company still doesn't have the order in question, Styslinger says, but expects it soon, characterizing it as "fully approved" and in its customer's purchasing department. "If we closed in the next couple days, we'd be a lot better off," he says.

Styslinger insisted that the delay didn't reflect competitive problems or technical issues, just cable operators double-checking their budgets.

As for the Wall Street denizens blindsided by the news, probably the most psychic pain was suffered by David Lee Smith, senior analyst at Dain Rauscher Wessels. Smith initiated coverage on SeaChange this morning before the preannouncement, rating the company a buy and slapping a 12-month price target of $53 on the stock.

"Do I wish it hadn't happened? Absolutely," Smith says. But, he says, "I think it's explainable, and things are pretty much the same when I got to work this morning. ... If the quarter had lasted a week longer, we wouldn't have had any action today."

Smith says that low visibility was a particular hazard faced by vendors in the cable TV business. "Revenues, when you're dealing with cable MSOs, can be lumpy," he says. "The best of them are bureaucratic and slow."

Continues Smith: "Is video on demand going to be a major area of deployment for cable operators in 2001? I think the answer continues to be yes." And, he asks, does the news indicate any inherent weakness in SeaChange? "I don't think it does," he answers. (Smith's firm hasn't been an underwriter for SeaChange.)