Updated from 6:21 a.m. with more analyst comments.
With its $79 billion acquisition of Time Warner Cable (TWC) expected to close in the first quarter, Charter may have the right mix of content and service to offer the kind of streaming TV platform that the industry has long lacked, a vacuum Netflix (NFLX - Get Report) was quick to fill.
"The scale that Charter acquires will help them as consumers switch to over-the-top" Internet streaming, S&P Capital IQ media analyst Tuna Amobi said in a phone interview. The new Charter will be a stronger competitor against both satellite television and the telecommunications companies like Verizon (VZ - Get Report) and AT&T (T - Get Report) , he said.
Charter, which is also acquiring Bright House Communications for $10.4 billion, is already testing some of its existing customers with "skinny bundle" packages that are likely to compete directly with streaming services such as Dish Network's (DISH - Get Report) Sling TV, which starts at $20 per month for 20 channels, and Sony's (SNE - Get Report) PlayStation Vue, which starts at $50 per month for 50 channels.
Charter quietly launched a skinny bundle package last month in Midwest markets for $12.99 per month that includes local broadcast channels and a premium cable channel like HBO or Showtime, according to several media reports. Consumers can add 16 more top cable channels like Disney's (DIS - Get Report) ESPN or Time Warner's (TWX) TBS for $7 more.
Cable companies like Charter are just beginning to aggressively market these "cord-cutter" packages as they struggle with declining video subscriber numbers, said Bernstein analyst Todd Juenger in an Oct. 29 note.
The 13 largest pay-TV providers in the U.S., or roughly 95% of the market, lost about 190,000 net video subscribers in the third quarter, when Charter was the only cable company to report gains, according to Leichtman Research Group data.
Analysts like Macquarie Research analyst Amy Yong are bullish on Charter for its ability to generate massive cash flow and growth prospects. In a Nov. 20 note, Yong said she was "impressed" with Charter's Spectrum user-interface display that focused on consumer-friendly search and discovery as well as its "lower-priced and nimble packages" in the works.
For Charter, a merger will create the third-largest video provider in the U.S. and give the new company more broadband leverage. This new Charter will likely prioritize its cloud offerings and try to find its role as a wireless provider, Amobi said.
The merger is awaiting regulatory review and has drawn some protest from critics, including from the National Association of Broadcasters and Dish Network, although not as much opposition as Comcast (CMCSA - Get Report) faced with its bid for Time Warner earlier this year. The public comment period for the deal, including responses to any opposition, closed Nov. 12. Next, the FCC will review the entire case and approve or disapprove it, likely by early next year.
"There's not much resistance from other pay-TV operators this go-around," said Telsey Advisory Group analyst Tom Eagan in a phone interview with TheStreet. "There are a lot fewer comments on the deal. You don't have a lot of programmers like Discovery (DISCA - Get Report) and CBS (CBS - Get Report) being critical."
Comcast, which recently launched a $15-per-month Stream bundle of about a dozen channels, made a $45.2-billion bid for Time Warner earlier this year. But it dropped its plans in April as it faced unlikely approval by the FCC, which was concerned about the costs of Internet connections and obstacles for newer entrants to the industry.
Charter gains both operating leverage and negotiating leverage with programmers, giving it the ability to experiment with the size of its bundles, Eagan said.
"Consolidation will help the cable operators," Eagan said. "The markets have been flat and they've been struggling because the programmers have been asking for higher prices."
While Charter may be stepping into the ring with skinny bundles, it is still unclear how large a threat cord-cutting is to the traditional model. Few companies have released subscriber numbers on skinny bundles but at least one recent survey from TDG Research indicates that skinny bundle subscriber numbers are waning.The percentage of adults planning to moderately or highly likely to cancel their pay-TV service declined by 20% from 2014 to 2015, according to TDG Research. Only 1.4% of pay-TV customers said they planned to cancel their service in the next six months.