Investors in multichannel video stocks are feeling threatened, though it is hard to pin down why.
trade-show touting of a video-capable network, a
promotional offer, and a legal decision involving
have all surfaced this week.
It doesn't stretch the imagination to believe that each of these developments played a role in pushing down one or more media stocks Tuesday. And yet, it's just as easily arguable that the threat posed by each piece of news is too small, or too far off, to be of much consequence.
Thus the recent news is somewhat of a Rorschach test -- a picture so vague and ambiguous-looking that Wall Street was free to see whatever preconceived conclusions it had, most of which are negative ones, apparently.
On Tuesday, shares in Cablevision, the New York-based cable operator, closed at $20.30, down 4.3% for the day, while most other publicly traded cable operators also traded downward.
, perceived to be a bystander bruised by a dispute between DirecTV and satellite distributor
, fell more than 2% Tuesday morning, but recovered to $30.10, a 2-cent loss.
Tuesday's decline could partly be blamed on SBC's plan to spend up to $6 billion on a next-generation fiber-based, Internet-based network -- one capable of delivering digital TV, "super-high-speed" broadband and voice-over-Internet protocol services to residential and small business customers.
SBC's announcement -- coinciding with a Tuesday morning keynote speech by SBC Chairman Ed Whitacre at the Supercomm trade show in Chicago -- represents an obvious threat to cable operators, who are muscling into telco territory by starting to bundle VoIP telephony with data and video.
And yet, reading the qualifiers and disclaimers below the SBC headline, it's hard to tell how serious this particular threat is. That $6 billion number, it appears, is predicated on "final clarity" of applicable regulations and successful completion of trials that have yet to begin.
"The recent decision by the Bush administration to allow unlawful telephone wholesale rules to lapse and let stand the FCC's decision not to unbundle broadband is a positive step," Whitacre said in a statement. "We are now more optimistic that we may be headed toward rational, market-oriented regulations that will promote investment and deployment of new capabilities."
The regional Bell operating companies have had a long tradition of promising technological advancement in return for being freed of regulatory restraint, so it's not clear how seriously one should take these plans this time around.
But perhaps SBC is serious. And perhaps investors are linking the Tuesday announcement with Monday's news that Cablevision, the New York City cable operator,
is cutting prices on a video-data-VoIP package for new customers.
Some argue that the reaction to the Cablevision announcement was overblown. UBS analyst Aryeh Bourkoff, for example, wrote that the bundle is accretive to average monthly revenue per subscriber, and thought that the short-term promotion would have little impact on his expectations for the company. (Bourkoff has a buy rating on Cablevision's equity; his firm hasn't done recent banking for the company.)
But one buy-side analyst, whose firm is shorting both cable and telco stocks, says the Cablevision and SBC news items illustrate a nightmare for both industries: the regional Bell operating companies committing themselves to huge outlays while cable operators cut prices to compete with telcos. The buy-sider spoke on condition of anonymity.
Meanwhile, EchoStar, it was argued Tuesday, could be hurt by a Monday ruling in the bankruptcy proceedings of Pegasus, which has been a distributor of DirecTV's home satellite service. On Monday, the judge in the case denied Pegasus' request for a temporary restraining order that would have prevented DirecTV from marketing its service directly in rural territories where Pegasus has had the exclusive right to distribute DirecTV.
Because that ruling freed up DirecTV to market its service more vigorously than Pegasus has in those territories, some view it as an EchoStar negative. EchoStar "must face a new robust competitor in certain rural markets and EchoStar will likely cease to be the primary beneficiary of
Pegasus churn," Bourkoff wrote Tuesday. (He has a hold rating on EchoStar's bonds; his firm has been an underwriter for EchoStar in the past three years.)
Yet one could argue that the Pegasus territories represent only a small part of EchoStar's footprint, and that these well-penetrated rural markets don't represent as much of a growth potential for EchoStar's Dish Network as other areas.
EchoStar shareholders also have to puzzle over the impact of SBC's intentions to build its new video-capable network, since EchoStar has been teaming with SBC to offer consumers a video/telephone/data bundle of services.
On the one hand, building a fiber network would imply that one day SBC will be competing with EchoStar for video customers, not cooperating with EchoStar to sign them up. On the other hand, when the companies announced their bundling agreement in July 2003, an SBC executive said the agreement contemplated that if the phone company started delivering video by wire, "EchoStar would be the preferred video provider over those new networks," according to the CCBN transcript of the call.