Bright House Networks Is the Darling of Cable TV. But Why?

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- For a cable TV provider with about 2.5 million subscribers, including customers in California, Florida and Michigan, Bright House Networks might as well be Lebron James during free agency. Everyone wants it.

Charter Communications (CHTR) was all set to acquire privately-held Bright House, the country's sixth-largest cable-TV provider, before Comcast's (CMCSA) merger deal with Time Warner Cable (TWC) failed to win fast approval from government regulators, putting that agreement in jeopardy. Since then Time Warner Cable has reached out to Bright House for a deal and Comcast has also been mentioned as a possible acquirer, according to The Wall Street Journal.

And according to a Reuters report, Bright House plans to jettison a  $10.4 billion deal to be acquired by Charter, citing people familiar with the matter. Charter's earlier merger agreement with Bright House included a 30-day provision allowing for the two companies to renegotiate a deal if the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger failed to close.

So, what does Bright House have that everyone wants? In a word: customers.

Charter, Comcast and Time Warner Cable are all trying to grow through acquisitions. Increasing revenue isn't as easy as it used to be. The number of video subscribers is either going down or standing still. Future growth will come through broadband services and increased video offerings, and Bright House has customers.

"I don't know that it's about what's so appealing about Bright House as it is about the challenges that the major players in the cable space are all wrestling with at the moment," Steve Beck, managing partner at management consultancy cg42, said in a phone interview on Thursday. He cited challenges such as brand and customer vulnerability being at all-time highs, an erosion in the number of video subscriptions, and operators' negotiating power over content becoming increasingly weakened.

A merger between Bright House and Time Warner Cable would make sense because of their history together, said Macquarie Securities analyst Amy Yong in a phone interview on Thursday. Time Warner Cable has a long-standing deal to handle Bright House's cable programming and technology purchases. Nonetheless, Charter’s customer base is more geographically aligned with that of Bright House than Time Warner Cable's. If Charter does end up buying Bright House, it would merge existing subscribers in California, Michigan and the Gulf Coast.

The main issue facing the cable sector's top five players is that subscribers have become increasingly frustrated by the service providers. Customers are increasingly aware that they have options. The options include the various "skinny bundle" Internet-streaming offerings that bypass traditional pay TV, including HBO Now from Time Warner (TWX).

Consumers are frustrated by having to paying for cable channels they never watch while experiencing poor customer service, said Beck. 

Said Beck, "When you couple those things together and the top-line pressures that exist for each of the majors, you see them looking at the obvious short-term path to pump up earnings" --  that is, acquisition.

Acquisitions can help dominant cable companies expand into new areas of the country, he said. Bright House is the second-largest cable provider in Florida, and also has a presence in Alabama, California, Indiana and Michigan. For its part, Comcast has already shown an interest in growing via acquisition through its attempted merger with Time Warner Cable. 

Comcast didn't have a true strategic need for the Time Warner Cable merger because Comcast already had sufficient scale to get the best available terms from content and equipment vendors, Buckingham Research Group analyst James Ratcliffe recently said in a research note. He predicted Comcast wouldn't rush to make another merger deal.

Charter planned to buy Bright House in a $10.4 billion deal that was contingent on the completion of the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger. Since that deal's termination, The Wall Street Journal reported that Charter and Time Warner Cable have had separate acquisition talks with Bright House.

Bright House and Time Warner Cable declined to comment Thursday.

Charter didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.

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